Lynchburg’s First Childcare Center Continues to Thrive

Photos by Ashlee Glen

As a child of former enslaved parents, living in a time when Black Americans had to piece together their lives with what the era would allow, Mary McLeod Bethune understood the importance of preserving family and ensuring children are properly cared for, no matter their circumstances. 

Despite the challenges and injustices facing Black Americans, including segregation, Mary would go on to found Bethune Nursery School, Lynchburg’s first childcare center, in 1936.

Today, Mary Bethune Academy carries on the legacy of its founder, nestled among a quiet neighborhood on Halifax Avenue, emphasizing its place in the community.

Although it is a daycare center for families who need childcare, Mary Bethune Academy embraces
its academy moniker acting as an early learning center.

The academy partners with the United Way of Central Virginia and receives federal assistance for roughly 70 percent of families, helping to make resources for the academy and childcare rates for families as accessible as possible.

As you enter the academy, every color imaginable is splashed over the walls, tiles, and furniture to keep the young minds engaged. Four classrooms divide up children by age, from infants to toddlers, with each class overseen by a lead teacher and an assistant or two.

“I’m thinking about what has contributed the most to our center’s longevity, and I really do keep coming back to our staff and the incredible job they do every day with our children,” said Karen Fitzgerald, Director of Office Operations for Mary Bethune Academy. “They really do treat every child as if he or she is their own, and they truly have a passion for children and wanting them to succeed. They are, without a doubt, the reason our center is trusted and supported by the Lynchburg community, and has been for almost a century.”

A few staff members at the academy have been woven into the long legacy of Mary Bethune, caring for generations of families in Lynchburg over the years.

Director of Facilities and Senior Lead Teacher Mary York has worked at Mary Bethune Academy since 1994, and her dedication to the community of families and children in Lynchburg has not wavered over that time.

York was born and raised in Chicago to a single mother who had to work while Mary attended daycare. York cites her mother as her initial inspiration to enter the childcare field. She went on to receive her Associate’s degree in Early Childhood Education.

Mary, her husband, and her three kids moved to Virginia in 1984, where she has lived since. Now a grandmother to seven, Mary says that “being a parent and a grandparent helps me to understand the concerns and expectations parents have when they place their children into someone else’s care.”

“From when I started to now, I believe I’m more in-tune with my kids. I see their potential and enjoy listening to their views and explanations on everything,” York said.

As York speaks about her work at Mary Bethune Academy, she often, if not always, refers to the children attending as “my kids.”

Considering the teachers at Mary Bethune care for and teach children in their most formative years, Fitzgerald’s thought that the academy is “kind of like a little family” is demonstrated every day the center opens its doors.

“Working at MBA has brought me closer to the community because I’ve gotten to know the families. I am fortunate that I have been at MBA for so long that I’ve had the children of former children in my class. I think we, as childcare workers, become part of a child’s extended family,” York said.

Because of her continued dedication to quality childcare, York was recently awarded the Heart of Service Lifetime Achievement Award. The Virginia-based award is granted to the individual with “longevity and overall excellence in the field, with 20 plus years of service, and a demonstrated commitment to a career of caring for children.”

York’s consistent work over 30 years likely made her an ideal candidate. Reflecting on her career, York suggests that childcare has mostly remained the same over the years, as teachers try to support the social and emotional needs of their kids, with a recent and increasing focus on their readiness for elementary school.

“I feel that receiving this award means that I have truly made a positive impact on the lives of the children and families MBA has served,” York said.

While the academy staff are experts in their field, there are many challenges inherent to the work they do. York says that the most prevalent issue is having enough space and resources to accommodate the increasing childcare needs of the community. Fitzgerald echoes that sentiment saying that there is “no such thing as a slow season.”

Located in a former elementary school building, Mary Bethune Academy’s classrooms are large and sunny. Children have ample space to move around, experiencing different play centers, and to engage in free play and story time.

“We are always looking for new ways to partner with our local schools and area organizations to provide services for more children and their families,” York said.

Fortunately, Mary Bethune Academy will soon make an addition to its facility that the kids will likely enjoy much more than the parents and staff. A new state-of-the-art playground is under construction, and set to be complete by Spring 2024, thanks to several donations to the facility. 

No matter the shape of the facility, the academy is continually ensuring that Mary McCleod Bethune’s legacy of care and love for all of the community’s children is being carried on through the generations.  

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