A Success Story for the Books…
WORDS & PICTURES: Gabrielle Versmessen.
After one of the most unprecedented times in our country’s history in 2020, D C’s Child Care Center was at a loss for what to do. Short-staffed, unable to find anyone to hire, and about to close their doors for good, they reached out to the Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County.
“We called, said we’re about to shut down, and we didn’t know what to do. They explained that there was an Early Childhood Education program starting at Manatee Technical College (MTC) and asked if we wanted to be on the list for graduates to call,” explains Adrianna Craddock, Director of D C’s Child Care Center.
The Early Childhood Education pre-apprenticeship program prepares students to be qualified child care teachers. It’s an eight-week course made up of 150 hours of class time. The instruction they provide includes the necessary 45 DCF hours, CPR, first aid, inclusion training, and PEARLS training. These specific qualifications ensure that the students are employable as soon as they complete the program. As they wrap up their eight weeks, the students go out on interviews at local child care sites. The goal is for the students to have a guaranteed job waiting for them once they graduate.
D C’s Child Care Center managed to stay open for another year from that initial ELC phone call, but they were truly at their wit’s end. That’s when Ralitsa Funez called.
Adrianna says: “We were praying and saying, ‘If someone comes, they come. If not, then it’s the end.’ When Ralitsa called, we asked if she had her 45 hours and was ready to work. She told us yes, and when she came to interview, we thought she was just lovely! This could not have worked out better.”
The program also prepares the students’ soft skills like resume writing and interview preparedness. Additionally, the students get the opportunity to go on tours of different child care facilities within the community. A unique aspect of this program is how MTC has a mock child care lab so that students are able to immerse themselves fully into the classroom role.
When NEXTGEN last spoke with Ralitsa during her time in the program, she was working a night job, attending school during the day, and still providing for her family. Now, Ralitsa is working full-time at D C’s Child Care as of October 2022 as a teacher in the two-year-old room.
“I love it,” she says. “I’m still learning new things every day, and each day presents a new challenge. So, I ask myself, ‘What can I do next to help these kids?’”
But it’s not just caring for those fun, energetic little ones that she loves. Ralitsa has connected strongly with her special needs students. One student, in particular, was recently diagnosed with high-level autism. His mom has been having a hard time getting him to eat certain foods, but Ralitsa has been able to get him not only to eat but actually enjoy those foods he once had an aversion to!
There is also a deeper, personal connection that happens with some of the students.
“I connected with one child because they reminded me of my childhood. It can bring up difficult memories, but it also makes me sentimental. I strive to be that positive influence in their lives that they so desperately need right now.”
Adrianna says that she and her mother, Devatta (D C’s Child Care Center owner), are beyond happy with the results of the pre-apprenticeship program, stating that Ralitsa is “just one of the most amazing employees ever.”
Adriana, Devatta, and the students aren’t the only ones overjoyed with Ralitsa. The parents have quickly grown to love her too! Adrianna recalled how the parents would first ask about who the new teacher was but started getting a lot of great feedback on her.
Through an app called “WhatsApp,” Ralitsa and the other employees of D C’s Child Care Center are able to keep parents updated throughout the day with pictures or videos of their children. From big play days to the little crafts, Ralitsa’s lesson plans captivated the parents.
“Most of Ralitsa’s crafts are hands-on activities. She says, ‘Let’s get messy; let’s get dirty!’ She’ll make sure to tell the parents to pack an extra change of clothes or a bathing suit for their kids. Then, they’ll do big, messy crafts or run around outside in the sprinklers, dancing on the turf,” Adrianna describes, smiling.
Ralitsa took the initiative to implement spirit weeks at the center. The children participated in hat day, crazy sock day, and holiday-themed days! That was something the center hadn’t thought about doing before.
“Because the center was close to closing when I started working here, I noticed the spirit needed to be lifted. The parents have even started to participate! Valentine’s Day was a big hit. On St. Patrick’s Day, one of the dads came in a big leprechaun hat to pick up his son,” Ralitsa says.
It’s important to Ralitsa that the kids are having fun even though they’re there to learn. To celebrate Easter, she wore bunny ears that would pop up when she squeezed them.
Ralitsa’s future endeavors include continuing her education and eventually owning her own child care center one day. She is currently enrolled in the Early Childhood Education Apprenticeship program at Manatee Technical College for higher-level training. What’s neat about this is that Anna Maria Mascherino Carleton was Ralitsa’s instructor during the pre-apprenticeship program and is also her course instructor now. Having a familiar face and teaching instruction really encourages the students to continue their education as they know what to expect when walking into the classroom each semester.
Anna Maria speaks highly of Ralitsa. “I think her work ethic really says a lot about the program here at MTC. Ralitsa provides for her family while also attending school. This field takes a lot of dedication. Sometimes people feel like it’s a thankless job or they’re not paid as much as other people and the fact that these girls are putting in so much effort into wanting to be here shows their drive and passion.”
Along with a want to make learning fun, Ralitsa and AnnaMaria share a passion for creativity. A lot of the craft ideas Ralitsa has for the students come from a large book AnnaMaria has available to her students. Her other ideas come from Pinterest or are her own invention.
Ralitsa says: “I can see that the Early Childhood Education Pre-Apprenticeship Program is working. It gave me all the skills I needed to begin my career in early child care. We even had one girl recently call to interview here who just finished her course.”
Francesca Ricciardo, Workforce Initiatives Coordinator at the ELC, has been working with Ralitsa since she applied for the pre-apprenticeship program. “Ralitsa was always on time and willing to participate no matter how tired or stressed she was. She worked really hard to be where she’s at and I know she’ll continue working hard to complete her goals. She is exactly what we look for in the program. Someone who has never worked in child care before, went through the program, and is now loving and thriving at where she’s working.”
After 12 years in business, Adrianna and Devatta are thrilled to continue operating their center and credit the program’s successful output of employable students in the community as a huge reason why they’re still open. Having a child care center close its doors can be devastating for employees and families alike. Thankfully, the ELC and MTC are working hard to change the quality of early childhood education for the better throughout Manatee County.
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