Editor's note: For several charitable organizations, the holiday season — like the rest of the year — is a time to help those dealing with some of life's toughest problems and providing solutions to those problems. In the week leading up to Christmas, the News Tribune is using its "A Christmas Wish" series to showcase individuals whose lives were impacted by United Way of Central Missouri partner agencies and donors.
"Play dough!" — The word filled the classroom at the Little Explorers Discovery Center as a group of 4-year-olds flocked to teacher Diane Gray as she pulled out a large bag of the doughy green substance.
Nearby, Rick Andris, a blind volunteer at the center, held a children's book written in braille as a student ran her hands across the pages to feel the series of slight bumps.
It was a normal day at the center, although a bit louder than most with Christmas less than a week away. Children filled the classrooms, teachers managed chaos calmly, and volunteers lulled infants to sleep in rocking chairs.
"There's always a happy environment when you come in; everyone always has a smile on their face," said Evelyn Zayumba, parent ambassador to the center's board of directors. Her son, Ronald Bolden III, 2, started going to the center six months ago.
But Zayumba knew the quality of Little Explorers before becoming a parent — she went to the center when she was 3 years old and stayed until kindergarten.
"I remember doing a play, and I just, I loved the interaction and there was always different things that they had us doing, and so that always kept things interesting," she said.
Now, Zayumba works as an assistant manager at Maurices, having studied fashion merchandising at the University of Central Missouri.
As a child, Zayumba immigrated with her parents from Tanzania. Little Explorers played a crucial role in her development.
"This was the base of where I started to develop English skills, because when I first came here, I only spoke my native language, which is Swahili," Zayubma said.
Her experiences at the center made it an easy decision to bring her son there.
"It was many years ago that I went here, but it felt like home. It felt comforting," she said. "I knew he was going to be in good hands, I knew I wasn't going to have any issues."
The Little Explorers Discovery Center's doors are open to everyone, Executive Director Donna Scheidt said, but its focus is on children of the working poor — hourly workers with low income. The center is a partner agency of United Way of Central Missouri, which provides funding to help families afford the service.
"When you see our parents come in through our doors, you're going to see every fast food uniform, you're going to see the nursing aides at the nursing centers, you're going to see the maids at the hotels, you're going to see a lot of other families also," Scheidt said.
Little Explorers currently cares for 94 children, but can serve up to 99. At the center, students learn subjects like sign language, music, art, science, math and literacy. Teaching is often done through song or outside activities, and good hygiene is always a focus, Scheidt said.
The center is also an accredited early childhood education program, requiring it to meet higher standards than other daycares. Little Explorers has two teachers with master's degrees, multiple teachers with bachelor's degrees and teachers who are child development associate certified.
"If I can get them in the door, the staff, and get them in here for the first couple of weeks, then the children are why you stay," Scheidt said. " It's a real reward to work with children."
Zayumba said she wants to focus on educators as a parent ambassador, encouraging the recruitment of young people fresh out of school with an education degree. A well-rounded staff can better "cater to different children of all needs," she added.
Zayumba has only been in the position a short time, but she said it gives her a behind-the-scenes look of what is going on at the center.
"I think it's great that they incorporate a parent and also give the other point of view, that they take the parent's consideration because that is a lot of what makes or breaks a daycare," she said.
The center has only evolved since she was a child, Zayumba added, improving education, meals and staff training.
"In Jefferson City, it's really hard to find child care," she said. "I think that once a parent does find a place that they like, they're not going to take their child out of there. So, it is pretty difficult to find a place that you like, that's affordable and that you can have a sense of peace when you drop your child off."
"Me and his dad are grateful we found somewhere like that."
In this series:
Smiles abound at Little Explorers Discovery Center