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Investing In Faculty And Staff: The Lehigh University Child Care Center

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Kathy Calabrese, Director of the Lehigh University Child Care CenterWhen a Lehigh employee discovers he or she will become a parent, Kathy Calabrese is usually one of the first people to find out.  As director of the university’s Child Care Center, Kathy manages enrollment, which is usually at capacity with a waiting list.

“We’re in the midst of a baby boom here at Lehigh,” Kathy said recently. “So as soon as someone finds out a baby is on the way, he or she picks up the phone and calls me.”

Currently caring for 52 children from newborn to preschool age, the center has been an option for Lehigh staff, faculty, and students since 1990. The waiting list is just one indication that Lehigh’s child care center is on the right track.

A Sunny Corner On South Mountain

Even on a rainy, gray morning, the child care center is a cheery place. After passing a group of toddlers heading out for a walk on the cross country paths behind the facility, guests are greeted by a colorful mural in the foyer. The children created the mural with the center’s artist-in-residence “Mr. Bill.”

Busy toddlers and babies play indoors on a rainy day.In the baby rooms, crawling tots chase down balls and other toys. Meanwhile on the other side of the building, preschoolers are enjoying a book about apples with their teacher. There’s always a buzz of activity in the center, but one oasis of calm is the baby napping room, where the lights are low and infants enjoy bottles and doze in their cribs.

“We are over the mountain, a little removed from the Asa Packer campus,” Kathy noted, “but this is a great location because children need space. We can go for walks during the day; we don’t have to worry about traffic or strangers. The kids get to see the leaves change and when the pine cones fall, we pick them up and paint them. It’s really nice to be so close to nature.”

An Extension Of The Lehigh Family

The child care center resulted from a university presidential commission on women in the late 1980s. Peter Likins, then president of Lehigh, spearheaded an effort to recognize and support the growing numbers of women in the workforce and attending graduate school. In addition to the child care center, the commission also recommended the establishment of the Women’s Center.

Kathy has been the director of the center since it first opened its doors. “At first, the university investigated bringing in a private company to provide a child care center,” she recalled. “But none of the proposals seemed right for Lehigh. So, President Likins asked me if I would consider starting a center from the ground up.”

Kathy believes being a center that is a part of the university makes a difference. “We’re all working for the same employer,” she says, “so we’re working together on every front, following the same code of ethics, and incorporating the strategies and long term goals of the university into what we do.”

In addition, because they aren’t a business, the center’s mission doesn’t involve maximizing profits. “We’re here to love the children – they come first,” Kathy said. “We’re an extension of the Lehigh family, offering our parents the support and peace of mind they need to do their jobs or complete their graduate studies.”

The center offers a flexible schedule for families, which is attractive to university employees and students who often have unusual schedules.

The People Make The Difference

Kathy isn’t the only long-time employee at the center. “Some of us have been here since the start of the center, for nearly 22 years, and many others have been here 15 or more years,” she said. “That longevity and continuity is so important for the children.”

Sally Gilotti from Communication and Public Affairs says her daughter adores the care providers at the center. “She’s always saying ‘Miss Hali [head teacher Hali Dashti] says we should wash our hands’ or ‘Miss Hali says we should be kind to each other,’ I love that she has these other grown-ups in her life who support what we are doing at home.”

Kathy also appreciates the diversity of her staff, which she believes is an important example for the children. “We have staff, and families, from all over the world. It helps us be a part of that global engagement we emphasize at Lehigh."

Mary Kay Baker reads to preschoolers at the Lehigh University Child Care CenterA Living Laboratory And A Cure For The Homesick Blues

The center benefits the university in other ways as well. For instance, graduate students from the College of Education sometimes conduct research and studies with the children. Psychology students come in and observe the children to see the different stages of social development. The center also works with the Sociology Department. Parental permission is always obtained before research or observation takes place.

Lehigh students also work in the center, and Kathy says this is a good opportunity for some who are considering careers in education. “The real world experience with the children can either cement their interest or help them decide it’s not for them,” she said. “We also have workers who say being here among families helps stave off their homesickness.”

Opportunities For Involvement

The Child Care Center welcomes involvement from the campus community. The men’s lacrosse team has started paying regular visits to the center, engaging the pre-schoolers in fitness activities.  Head Coach Kevin Cassese was looking for community service opportunities for his athletes, and the partnership is going well. Kathy is hopeful that even more teams will get involved in the future.

David Joseph, executive director of Student Auxiliary Services (the department that oversees the center) recently started a faculty and staff reading program that has been well received by both the volunteer readers and the children. Laura Bachman and Mary Kay Baker from Conference Services joined him recently on a visit to read to toddlers and preschoolers. They enjoyed it at least as much as the kids.

“It’s always entertaining,” Laura said, “It’s a good break in the day for us, and it’s good for the kids to meet different people.”

David Joseph reads to toddlers at the LU Child Care CenterMary Kay agreed, “I would encourage other people to do it.  It only takes ten or so minutes and you can really feel good about what you’re doing.”

After reading Goodnight Gorilla to a table of appreciative toddlers, David made the rounds of the center, checking on furniture needs and greeting staff. Having oversight of the child care center just might be his favorite part of his job at Lehigh.

“Kathy can always tell if I’m having a bad day,” he said, “because I show up here unannounced to watch the little kids playing and running around, or maybe hold a baby. It’s a real lift.”

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