Eastminster’s Half-Century of Child Care Provides Lifetime of Love and Learning

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Tuesday, August 13, 2019, 7:35 am
Mark Meyer

Benjamin English, leader of the Munchkin Music Makers, teaches at Eastminster Child Development Center twice a week. “The kids absolutely adore him,” said Executive Director Christie Parry, “and he loves working with the children.” (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Hill/ECDC)

Because Maggie Harris had previously worked at a day-care center, she had certain qualities in mind when it came time to enroll her own children. She wanted it to be nonprofit, so that all the money was going back to the school. She wanted it to have strong accreditation and a staff that had a long tenure.

Harris moved to Lansing with her family when her oldest child was six months old, and she immediately began touring day-care centers within driving distance of her home. It didn’t take her long to find Eastminster Child Development Center – situated at the corner of Hagadorn Road and Burcham Drive, across from Marble Elementary School – and once she did, she knew it was going to be an ideal environment for her toddler.

“(Eastminster) stood out to us because of how welcoming everyone was and because of their support for families and siblings,” said Harris, who manages the Pathways to Employment AmeriCorps VISTA program for the Michigan Nonprofit Association, and who also is a member of the ECDC Board of Directors. “My oldest kid’s teachers all give me updates about my youngest, even though they’re not in the same classroom or even on the same playground.

“As a parent, I feel like the teachers genuinely enjoy working with my kids, even when they’re at their most toddler-esque. Sometimes I travel for my job and the teachers will make a point of sending me extra pictures of the kids while I’m gone, which means so much to me.”

Eastminster has reached a milestone this year, its 50th as a center for child care and learning. Though the accredited center has moved its base of operations a couple of times over the years, the ECDC leadership team feels right at home on a parcel of property that dates back to the 1830s when it was part of Marble Farms.

“Yes, of course, it would be nice to have some extra space. But this is our home and we like it here,” Executive Director Christie Parry said during an interview in her office last week. “It would be nice to have an infant room so that we could offer that option to our families, who typically struggle in those first couple of months to find someone or somewhere that can care for their babies outside the home.”

Christie Parry, Executive Director of Eastminster Child Development Center. Parry worked at ECDC while attending classes at Michigan State University as an undergrad.

Energy, enthusiasm and an ability to inspire

Eastminster begins enrolling children at 10 months and has summer programs for kids through age 9. The center offers programs for Toddlers (ages 1 year to 2½ years), Preschool I (2½ years to 4) and Preschool II (ages 4 and 5). ECDC currently has 126 children enrolled among the approximately 100 families that it serves, and it employs 16 full-time staff and 24 part-time instructors, many of whom attend Michigan State University and work at least 10 hours per week.

Outside of its general curriculum, Eastminster offers very popular programs in Creative Movement, taught by longtime local dance instructor Mary Jane Gamble, and Music Learning Theory, taught by Benjamin English – also known as the Munchkin Music Maker.

According to Parry, the combination of Gamble’s boundless energy and enthusiasm, coupled with English’s uncanny ability to inspire young learners, provides Eastminster with an extra special level of instruction for its students.

“The way the kids respond to both of them is so inspiring,” Parry said. “Their programs help support the great work that’s being done in our classrooms.”

Assistant Director Stacey Horstmann has been part of the Eastminster family since 2005, having first joined the staff as a preschool instructor. She knows why ECDC has been so successful – and why there is a two-year wait list to enroll.

“You have to have that natural spirit to want to work with kids,” Horstmann said. “We’re pretty lucky in that everyone (on staff) has the same mind-set.”

Connie Patterson has been an instructor with Eastminster since 1996. She helps guide the “Starfish” (toddlers, 10 months to 2½ years old) through their daily activities.

“I love the fact that we’re able to balance free play with learning,” Patterson said. “Teachers here have a lot of autonomy, and what we teach is not dictated by a corporate lesson plan.”

Eastminster children decorate tiles at the end of each school year that line the walls of the entryway.

Spiritual connection spans generations

All four of Anna Dematatis’ daughters have attended Eastminster. Her youngest will begin kindergarten later this month.

“Eastminster has been a security blanket for our family for the past eight years or so,” said Dematatis, a clinical psychologist who works outside her East Lansing home two days a week. “My youngest placed her tile on the wall with the others and it made me realize what a big part of our lives Eastminster has been over the years.”

Dematatis’ connection to Eastminster stretches back four decades. In the late 1970s she was enrolled at the site of the original preschool – Eastminster Presbyterian Church – on Abbot Road just north of Saginaw Street. As a 4-year-old, she drew a picture of two stick figures riding a tandem bicycle that now serves as ECDC’s logo.

“My teacher in that class … we were known as the ‘Moon Shadows’ … was Steve Kopke, who went on to teach at St. Thomas Aquinas. Steve is also the godfather to my four daughters. So, you can see, Eastminster has always had a special place in our hearts.”

Harris and her husband moved their family to East Lansing three year ago, after having commuted from the west side of Lansing to ECDC, past both of their workplaces.

“The closeness of Eastminster’s staff. Its nonprofit status. The large outdoor play area. The extracurricular activities offered to kids (movement and music). The role of staff and parents composing the board. All of these things strengthen Eastminster and make it a high-quality childcare center,” Harris said. “I’m excited that we’re about to embark on a construction project to make the physical structure of the building safer. Being housed in a historic building has presented a unique set of challenges for the school, but it’s also part of the charm.”

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