By Sarah Plummer
Friends R Fun Child Development Center in Summersville had a humble beginning 25 years ago in a basement room with toys brought from volunteers’ homes or donated by the community.
But as Director Judy Olson points out, they wanted to help Nicholas County by fulfilling a need and making a difference in their community. With no child care centers in the county at all before they opened in 1986, they certainly have filled a void.
Friends R Fun grew from eight children being cared for by volunteers from the Summersville Seventh Day Adventist Church, to a busy center with around 240 children enrolled and more than 30 full-time employees, she said.
From the first day they opened, Friends R Fun was licensed by the state — one of only seven listed in the state at that time.
The child care center is also proud to be nationally accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which makes them a cut above other centers, Olson explained.
Today Friends R Fun provides affordable child care for children between the ages of 6 weeks and 12 years.
They provide after-school and summer activities for school-age children.
In collaboration with the Nicholas County Board of Education, the center offers pre-K education.
They accept full- and part-time enrollment and, as a nonprofit organization, strive to provide child care at an affordable rate for parents.
“Our bottom line is that we want to provide a safe, loving and learning environment for children. For parents who are able to pay, we try not to charge a penny more than we have to. Our goal is to be a service to our parents,” she said.
Some students enrolled are assisted through DHHR, but many don’t qualify for state assistance but would not be able to afford child care at cost.
Olson explained that individual contributions and some United Way funds provide tuition supplement for many children of working parents or whose parents are going back to school.
“For a lot of our parents, life has hit them really hard and they just need a little help,” Olson said.
Most United Way funds go toward new equipment and educational tools for teachers and students to use in the classroom, she said.
Friends R Fun is a nondenominational, Christian center.
Olson said that the children may be exposed to Bible stories and learn but they do not teach a church doctrine.
“Our education philosophy is built on the fact that the first seven years of a child’s life are formative. We are interested in more than making sure that a child can learn their numbers, colors and shapes and be ready for kindergarten. Another goal is to give them the social and emotional attention they need to cope with life and take care of conflict — character development,” she explained.
Olson pointed out that Friends R Fun focuses on the importance of physical activity and being able to provide help with homework and special field trips for school-aged kids.
Beyond providing affordable child care, Olson said Friends R Fun strives to hire the best individuals to work with the children.
“It’s probably the most important job I have as director. I figure if I find people with the right character attributes — the gift of working with children — I can train them in any other knowledge they need,” she said.
All employees are encouraged to take a two-year state training program to become a Child Development Specialist through the Department of Labor.
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Center director: God has blessed us
Friends R Fun director Judy Olson says she believes the child development center has been blessed by God.
When the center was first getting its feet in its new building, things were very tight financially, she explained.
When bills came in, Olson would place notes on them that listed how much more tuition money would be needed to pay the bill.
Somehow, the tuition would come in and bills would get paid, but the center was running hand-to-mouth, she recalled.
At one point, the center prepared paychecks for their employees and Olson discovered they were $1,000 short of being able to cover the checks.
“I remembered reading some stories when I was a little girl about God answering prayer, so I went to see if there was a miracle in the mailbox. I remember there was nothing,” she explained.
“We prayed about it, but we were then trying to decide if we would hold the paychecks for a day or ask them not to cash them,” she continued.
“About 30 minutes before the end of day, a man walked into the building and said that his mother had sent him a check from California six weeks before, but he was tired of looking at it sitting on his desk,” she said.
Olson opened the envelope and discovered a check for $1,000.
“That is just one example of how God has kept our doors open,” she shared.
“If I had known how much blood, sweat and tears this project would be I don’t think I would have had the courage to start, but I really do feel that God has blessed us and that he is really the director of this center,” she concluded.
— Sarah Plummer
GED class offered
Several years after Friends R Fun opened and began fulfilling the community’s need for affordable child care, the center realized the community was also in need of a GED program.
“In Nicholas County, 33 percent of adults do not have a high school diploma,” said Friends R Fun director Judy Olson.
“Our GED program started, again, because of a need,” she explained. “If a parent does not have a high school diploma, it impacts children and their learning and desire to stay in school. They get in a cycle of dependency and we are trying to break that and help families.”
Friends R Fun runs a GED program next door to the child care center and has anywhere between seven and 15 adults enrolled at a time.
Last year, 70 students got their GEDs through the program, Olson reported.
— Sarah Plummer
ABOUT THE SERIES:
The work of the United Way of Southern West Virginia is diverse throughout Raleigh, Fayette, Wyoming, Summers and Nicholas counties, but the work it does is only as diverse as the need in our area.
And for Executive Director Margaret O’Neal, no need seems so large that it can’t be helped and no need is so small that it seems insignificant.
And so, the United Way of
Southern West Virginia services those needs through 33 agencies in those five counties.
This continuing series will focus on those agencies and how they meet needs — large and small.
Donations to help all of these agencies can be made to the
United Way of Southern West
Virginia, 104 Wilson St., Beckley, WV 25801 or call 304-253-2111.