By John Blankenship
For The Register-Herald
The Learning Tree Child Care Center will close its doors Aug. 16 after serving parents, patrons, students and staff for the past 37 years.
“We did our best to provide parents with a safe and secure haven for their children,” explained the school’s owner Marie Fowler of Beckley. “It was more than a school; it was a place where children could grow, have fun and learn what it means to be a responsible person.”
Fowler thanked staff personnel at the facility at a farewell reception and lauded the parents and supporters of the community during a reception held at the school.
Her husband and co-owner Tom Fowler was equally appreciative of the hard work that employees had contributed for nearly four decades.
“We are very grateful that our staff has enabled us to make a contribution to the community,” he said. “You’re only as good as the people who work for you, and we’ve been very fortunate to have the best people for nearly 40 years.”
The Learning Tree is located at 715 N. Kanawha St.
He added, “When our kids grow up and become successful we feel we’re a part of that, and we feel very good about it.”
Marie, a Beckley native, once developed a pre-school curriculum while teaching in Michigan. She later brought the curriculum to Beckley and started The Learning Tree.
“It’s been a loving, caring atmosphere that seemed like home for our children,” she said. “It’s the care and compassion the children learned to have for one another, and the compassion the teachers felt for the children that made us proud.”
Betty Bennett of Beckley has worked at the facility for the past 32 years. The school’s director noted that many of the children who once attended the preschool later came back to work as adult staff members.
“It’s a wonderful place if you enjoy children,” she said. “It’s a fast-paced and energetic place to be.”
To be sure, The Learning Tree has served the community as a premier child care facility that enabled children of all ages an opportunity to forge lasting friendships with one another, as well as with staff personnel.
About 124 children were enrolled at the facility during the year. Different activities were provided in different rooms. Children were grouped according to their age. There was an alphabet and writing room, a think tank, a music room and art room, a puzzle room, even home rooms. There was a play room, but children mostly were allowed to play outdoors when the weather permitted.
Some children arrived early in the morning before public schools opened and some were dropped off at the facility in the afternoon until their parents picked them up after work.
“There are very few places for kids to go after school nowadays,” Bennett explained. “We took a lot of field trips with the kids, especially during the summer when we went swimming, bowling, skating, visited pottery plants, bottling plants, the local newspaper office and more.”
One of the greatest challenges was getting the children ready for kindergarten. “They learned how to sit in seats, be still and listen when adults or other children were talking, not to interrupt. It was rewarding to watch them grow up and learn as they became successful adults.”
There were also tears of joy. “Over the years we had a lot of children from broken homes and divorced parents and they were kind of taken from one parent to another. It was like they were our children but we had to give them up for someone else to take care of them. In some ways, it’s like putting your own children up for adoption.”
Bennett, who has served as director of the facility since 1995, started out working with 2-year-olds at the facility. “Some of those kids have already grown up, went to college and roomed together, and graduated,” she said. “Many of that same group are still friends and keep in touch with each other.”
Her greatest challenge was learning what works for each individual child. “Each child is different,” she said. “You have to find a way to reach every one of them. When many of them get here they are so young and they have to learn so much, love and respect and good manners and things like learning to share everything, even sharing the teacher. Many at first want the teacher all to themselves.”
Marie Fowler agrees. She noted that a key element for achieving success is to know that every day you have to do a good job. “You can’t have off days because you don’t want the children to have an off day. You have to present a happy, listening personality to reach the children.”
Fowler said one of the most important qualities of staff personnel is the ability to make the children feel comfortable. “Adults have to love their job and be reliable and be good listeners as well as good speakers.”
Above all, she said, “Whatever you decide to do, you have to give children a chance to be successful. And you want them to feel successful every time they walk out that door.”