“Mix her cereal with two ounces of formula—her mom said she likes it soupy,” says Ashley Hendricks to Kathy, her assistant lead teacher in Infant 2 at the F.M. Kirby Children’s Center of the Madison Area YMCA. She slides 10-month old Blake into the highchair between Will and Christopher who have already started on their meals. It’s lunchtime. Today’s menu is breaded chicken, a mixture of peas, carrots and corn with diced pears for dessert, all prepared by the kitchen staff at the Kirby Center. Ms. Hendricks then turns her attention to Daniella, who is pointing at her belly. “Is your belly OK? Let me see,” says Ms. Hendricks. Daniella pulls up her shirt just enough to see her belly button, laughs and toddles back to her chair at the table where assistant teacher Rachel is helping feed the toddlers. The seven children in attendance today have already worked on their finger painting masterpieces and have played outside.

It’s having a bird’s eye view like this that is priceless. Rest assured, parents know that their children are being well-cared for and loved in a nurturing environment. The Kirby Center is an extension of their family.

When lead teacher, Ms. Hendricks was recently selected as one of 49 teachers from across the country to receive a 2016 Terri Lynne Lokoff/Children’s TYLENOL National Child Care Teacher Award, it wasn’t surprising.

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“I met Ashley when I became the executive director of the Kirby Center almost four years ago with the goal of bringing it to a new standard of quality and becoming a stronger resource for all families in our community,” said Harriet McCarter. “Ashley’s infant classroom stood out from the start as one of the best run programs I had ever observed, yet she welcomed the opportunity to meet higher standards. She worked intensively on how to best meet the developmental needs of the children in her care and strengthened her planning and curriculum delivery, but even more importantly, showed her staff – and parents, how to infuse every part of the day with specific learning opportunities and positive interactions for children.” 

The softly lit room, with stars floating from the ceiling and a sound machine whispering the sound of ocean waves, is an oasis for the 6-week to 20-month old children who spend their day with Ms. Hendricks. A sofa and glider make the room feel like home.

As Skylar tries to steal Will’s socks to put them on her hands, a penchant that she’s developed as of late, Will won’t have it so she pulls off her own socks instead. “Tell me something else you’d like to do,” says Ms. Hendricks, engaging Skylar who looks up at her and taps her finger tips together twice. “More of what?” asks Ms. Hendricks who understands her. The Kirby Center uses infant sign language with the children as another communication vehicle.

Ms. Hendricks’ prize for winning the national teacher award includes a cash award that acknowledges her dedication to the field of early child care and education with half of the award to be used towards the implementation of her winning classroom enhancement submission, “Parent Boards.” 

The boards will describe and illustrate the purpose of the play that happens in four interest areas in the classroom, which will create the opportunity for parents to see how and what their children are learning. “A parent board will be in each of the learning centers in the room,” explains Ms. Hendricks. “One in the Dramatic Play Corner, one in the Block Corner, one in the Quiet Corner and one in the Messy Area. More toys and manipulatives to develop motor skills will also be purchased with the money,” she adds.

Explaining that each child’s developmental milestone plan is reviewed regularly, Ms. Hendricks notes that she’s had children in her room who would benefit from an extra boost with speech and refers them to the Kirby Center’s Talking Tots, a half-day toddler program with an intensive focus on speech and language acquisition and development taught by a specially-trained teaching team under the direction of a licensed speech and language pathologist.

It’s the ingenuity, talent and dedication of teachers like Ms. Hendricks who work at the Kirby Center that make a difference every day in the lives of the children they teach and care for. Children can grow up at Kirby, progressing through curriculum-based early childhood education programs for infants, toddler and preschoolers and a Young 5s program before starting a full-day academic kindergarten. And it doesn’t have to end there. Kirby offers a kindergarten wraparound program and before-school care and after-school care for children through 5th grade.

Additionally, for families who might not be able to fully afford the cost of Kirby childcare or education, an assistance program is available for eligible families. As a cause-driven charitable organization, the Madison Area YMCA believes that everyone, regardless of age, income or background, should be enriched by the YMCA. Currently, 20% or more of families who utilize F.M. Kirby Children’s programs receive assistance.

“Head, shoulders, knees and toes,” sings Sam, an assistant teacher, sitting beneath a panda attached to a red-and-blue parachute suspended from the ceiling. Daniella, with an adorable Flintstone’s Pebbles-like pony tail on the top of her head, is enjoying the serenade while she plays with a bus. Ms. Hendricks puts Christopher on his belly for tummy-time and pulls Jackson into her arms. He instantly hugs her and she hugs him back. “You are the best hugger—do you know that?” she laughs, rocking him back and forth. “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands…” she sings. 

Ms. Hendricks will attend a reception in Philadelphia in April to accept her award and begin her Parent Board project. “The kids are going to love it,” she says.

We all know that the parents of these children will too.