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Concord’s Children’s Place and Parent Education Centersaved by intervention, new leader

  • From left, Aniruddh Sridhar, 3, Ishan Puvvala, 3, Cambelle Broas, 1, and Christina Veassillion, lead teacher at the Children's Place and Parent Education Center in Concord, play with rice Friday afternoon, April 4, 2014. The center has a new board, led by director Mary Pasquariello.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    From left, Aniruddh Sridhar, 3, Ishan Puvvala, 3, Cambelle Broas, 1, and Christina Veassillion, lead teacher at the Children's Place and Parent Education Center in Concord, play with rice Friday afternoon, April 4, 2014. The center has a new board, led by director Mary Pasquariello.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • From left, Cambelle Broas, 1, climbs around as Heather Thibodeau, lead teacher, reads with Emslie Broas, 3, at the Children's Place and Parent Education Center in Concord, play with rice Friday afternoon, April 4, 2014. The center has a new board, led by director Mary Pasquariello.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    From left, Cambelle Broas, 1, climbs around as Heather Thibodeau, lead teacher, reads with Emslie Broas, 3, at the Children's Place and Parent Education Center in Concord, play with rice Friday afternoon, April 4, 2014. The center has a new board, led by director Mary Pasquariello.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • From left, Aniruddh Sridhar, 3, Ishan Puvvala, 3, Cambelle Broas, 1, and Christina Veassillion, lead teacher at the Children's Place and Parent Education Center in Concord, play with rice Friday afternoon, April 4, 2014. The center has a new board, led by director Mary Pasquariello.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • From left, Cambelle Broas, 1, climbs around as Heather Thibodeau, lead teacher, reads with Emslie Broas, 3, at the Children's Place and Parent Education Center in Concord, play with rice Friday afternoon, April 4, 2014. The center has a new board, led by director Mary Pasquariello.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

The room was in chaos.

It was full of running children, toy dinosaurs, cardboard bricks, a rogue shoe, coloring books and at least two princesses.

But Christina Vassillion, the lead teacher at the Children’s Place and Parent Education Center in Concord, was unfazed.

“Let’s all go into the reading room and read a story,” she announced.

“You can bring your dinosaurs,” she said, an aside to an anxious 4-year-old.

And about five minutes later, the chaos – and the dinosaurs – had settled into a circle of about 15 children. From the colorful rug or a comfortable lap, they stared up at their teacher as she turned the pages of a book.

“We’re all going to use our listening ears,” Vassillion said.

The Children’s Place and Parent Education Center is playtime and story time. Nearly 40 years old, it runs a short-term day care and hosts support groups for parents. And last year, it almost closed.

It was saved in an intervention by its founders and a new center director, and like the quiet reading room circle, the Children’s Place has finally found a moment of peace.

“Everybody is working together to take (the Children’s Place) to its next incarnation,” said center Director Mary Pasquariello.

The Children’s Place was founded by a group of local parents that included now-Rep. Mary Stuart Gile, a Concord Democrat. The idea was born with her younger son, when Gile was taking a class during her pregnancy.

“I went up to the childbirth educator and said it was great to have classes for parents before they deliver, but what is there after?” she said. “And they said, nothing.”

Gile had studied early childhood education in graduate school, and she had friends who were also raising young children. So the Children’s Place opened its doors in 1978 in a little space on Storrs Street – where parents could come with questions, where one child could learn to interact with another.

“When you’re a first-time mom and you have a really rambunctious 16-month-old, sometimes it’s really great to have somewhere to go,” Gile said.

Gile served on the board for five years, but she has remained an adviser for the Children’s Place over the years. She saw the center move to its current home at 27 Burns Ave. on the Heights in the late 1990s, and she has seen its budget grow to more than $200,000. But its mission has remained the same.

“We look at children as they develop, parents as they develop, and try to enrich that,” Gile said.

An intervention

Then in 2012, Kay Sidway, the longtime center director, died of cancer. She had been in charge of the child-care floor from the beginning of the Children’s Place, and to Gile, she was “a magnet.”

“Kay brought up, I don’t know how many, generations of children,” she said.

And without the woman who had held the staff together for so many years, the Children’s Place lost focus. Gile called it a “grieving period.” Financial stresses weighed on the center, and then Gile said the board shrunk below the five members required by law for a nonprofit.

“It was dying,” Gile said.

Center directors came and went, Vassillion said, and her job as a teacher felt unstable.

“I didn’t know if I would be here next month,” she said.

But the small staff – one office manager, two teachers – kept coming to work.

“It was a very trying time, without question,” said office manager Kathleen Jaworski, who has been at the Children’s Place for 10 years.

“We stood united,” she said.

And the group that had originally united around the Children’s Place came together again. Gile, along with two of the first board members and some former staff members, returned to the board this year.

“We are the grandmothers. . . . When the Children’s Place ran into trouble, we decided to step in,” Gile said.

And the grandmothers turned to Pasquariello.

‘A soft place to fall’

This week, Pasquariello was sitting in a chair made for a preschooler when wooden animals clattered onto the table in front of her. A little boy looked up at her expectantly, and she took them into her hands while smiling.

“Hello, my name is Cow,” she said. “Hello, my name is Sheep.”

He giggled, and then ran away with the figures in his hands.

“One of the big goals is helping a child see another child’s perspective,” she said.

Pasquariello, who has 25 years of experience working with children and families, took over as center director this fall. She has a Montessori background, and she uses phrases like “social and emotional competency” to talk about her work. But the idea that drives her is a much simpler one.

“My personal philosophy is that all children are the same and that they deserve the best,” she said.

The Children’s Place offers up to three hours of child care during the day, which allows toddlers to play with other kids and parents to get time to run errands or attend appointments. A membership fee is $25 a year, and the child-care fee is $5 an hour per child or less, but Pasquariello said the staff works with those who can’t pay. The center also hosts support groups for parents and their children, as well as classes on a range of parenting topics.

As similar resource centers close, like one that used to run out of the nearby Dame School, Pasquariello said the Children’s Place is “just a soft place to fall during the stresses of being parents.”

The Children’s Place still needs volunteers and money: “Everything is a financial challenge for the center,” Pasquariello said. But for now, the center has found its own soft place to fall. This summer, it will put a $200,000 federal community development grant toward renovations to its building and playground. And Gile has said she and other returned board members will serve until they find younger parents to take over.

“What I love about the Children’s Place now, it serves a very economically and ethnically diverse community,” Gile said. “It’s a wonderful blend, a place where they can play.”

In one corner full of toys Thursday, a little girl in an all-pink outfit watched another boy bang on the fat keys of a toy keyboard.

She reached out and hit one key with her fingers, watching him when it chimed. He kept playing. Emboldened, she began to hit the keys with both hands.

Then they made music together.

To learn more about the services offered at the Children’s Place and Parent Education Center, visit thechildrensplacenh.org.

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

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