Christine Payne is a 1983 A&S graduate who majored in Anthropology and French. She has worked in Washington, D.C. and Chicago where she received her MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Currently Christine lives in Louisville, KY with her family where she is a consultant to nonprofit and public sector institutions.

I joined Madison House my 3rd year at the encouragement of a friend who was already volunteering for Help Line (at that time it was Open House Hot Line.) I volunteered for both the Daycare and Help Line programs that year. While I gained a lot of wonderful experience (not to mention training) with those choices, I decided during my 4th year to focus on a single program so that I could really put my energies into one area. My Help Line and daycare experiences had really complemented one another; in the end I chose daycare and spent a great year being reminded time and again about the wonderful world outside that cocoon of my “final year” at the University.

Interestingly, my time at the Westminster Child Care Center resulted in an entrepreneurial venture the summer after I graduated. With the same friend who had first introduced me to Madison House, we hosted a summer camp for children ages infant through early elementary school. Thanks to my Madison House training, we created a program for about 15 children that was held in her backyard (she had the better yard for summer camp!) The children were mostly referrals from friends and of course we weren’t “certified” childcare providers. But those parents trusted us implicitly and I know the imprimatur of my daycare program training was critical to their confidence level.

At the end of the summer we both found ourselves in “regular” jobs in Washington, D.C. We still talk about that camp and wonder where those children are now. I hope their memories are just as fond as ours!

As I walked into the preschool on Friday I could tell something was different. As I made a quick sweep of the room, I spotted the difference: we had a substitute teacher for the day. Immediately my thoughts turned to my own elementary school days, when substitute teachers meant that my classmates would play practical jokes, not get anything done, and generally goof off. Oh boy. Still, after not getting to go to the preschool two Fridays in a row, I couldn’t wait for the kids to arrive.

They started trickling in as usual and I took a spot in the free art corner, one of my favorite spots in the room. The kids get free time in the morning to do different activities around the room and the free art table is where they go to make projects of their own design. It’s always so fun to see what they can create and witness their never ending imagination. Plus, I get to color too! I helped one girl cut out colorful Easter eggs, I listened as one little boy told me about different species of sharks and fish (he even drew the different types out for me, close to 20 different pictures!), and I got a “present” made out of colored tape and smiley faces made by one of the girls as she happily told me about her life.

Everything was going smoothly until one of the boys ran up to me and whispered excitedly in my ear, “Our teacher isn’t here today!”

“You’re right!” I said, “but we have a substitute teacher for today.”

He gave me a mischievous grin and replied, “Yeah but she’s not our real teacher. We don’t have to listen to her!” With that last comment, he ran off to play with his buddies. That couldn’t be a good sign.

Circle time came next and it quickly became clear that the kids had no intention of behaving. It started with just a few of the boys, but the mischievous energy quickly infected the whole group. Before long it seemed as if none of them wanted to pay attention or sit still. I don’t think that I ever realized exactly how challenging it is to be a teacher. Effectively controlling, inspiring, teaching, and loving a group of five year olds every day is an enormous task! It definitely made me appreciate the effort (and patience) that she and my teachers put in every day to make our education possible and fun.

We struggled to make it through the lesson that day and moved on to snack time. As the kids’ energy grew, it seemed impossible that we would make it through the day. But then one of kids asked me to read a story in the reading corner. It was just the two of us, but soon other kids started coming up and listening too. They sat on my lap, around my feet, and draped themselves over my shoulders so they could see and listen too. It was amazing what a story could do. They were actually quiet and listening! The noise level came down a few decibels and we were all able to finally enjoy a peaceful moment.

Of course, as soon as the word “playground” was mentioned, they became their normal, energetic selves and soon I was running around outside playing freeze tag. I like it this way, though. There is this great balance between seriousness and fun that makes pre-school so perfect. You get to just be a kid. And of course there will be those days where nothing seems to get done or go just right. But that’s what makes the good moments, like reading a book or coloring Easter eggs or learning about sharks, so special. And it’s moments like those that really stick with you.

I realized as I walked up to the gate leading into the Molly Michie Preschool that I was a little nervous. This Friday was my first day to volunteer at the preschool. What if I mess up? What will the teacher think of me? Most importantly, will the kids like me? Kids have this innate sense about them—they can figure you out in a minute and decide whether you are worth their time or not. It can be a scary thing to walk into a room with fifteen four and five year old kids.

I made sure to be extra early for my first day. When I walked through the door, Ms. Avie, one of the teachers, helped me sign in and find my volunteer tag. This semester I am working with the Five Day Friends, the class of four and five-year-olds that meets five days a week. I made my way to the back of the building, where Ms. Lori, the teacher for my class, was setting up for the day. The room was filled with toys, books, games, crafts and music—a welcome respite to my life of desks, laptops and chalkboards. After giving me a quick tour, I helped Ms. Lori get ready for the day while quizzing her about the program.

Finally, kids started trickling in and my nerves completely faded away. Each kid that walked through the door was so full of energy and so excited for the day that I got swept up too. Their excitement was contagious. I helped decorate patriotic windsocks. I made airplanes and houses and cars out of Legos. I learned about Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama (who knew that five-year-olds were so up to date about their current President!). I helped get the snack ready and sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to one of the girls with the rest of the class. I read books to them and let them show me their artwork.

In just two hours I knew all of their names and began to discover their different personalities. They made me feel completely at ease and I had so much fun just being a kid again. Everyone that I met, the teachers and parents, were so extremely nice, energetic, and helpful. Two hours flew by so quickly, and before I knew it, I was off to my first class of the day. With a chorus of “Goodbye Brooke!!” and my last attempt to explain to one kid that I went to school too, I left to go back into the real world. I can’t wait for next Friday.

8:40. As I opened the gate to the Molly Michie Preschool, the place was deserted. The playground was covered with a blanket of snow. I cautiously made my way to the back, went down the stairs, only to find the door locked and the inside as much deserted as the outside.

What was going on? This was my first day to volunteer and there was absolutely no one there. Maybe I was too early. I made my way out to the front, found a nice patch of sun, and then waited. 8:50. 8:55. By 9:00, the time the preschool was supposed to start, I was feeling pretty confused. What if there was a back entrance I didn’t know about? What if my watch was wrong? What if they were on a field trip or something? What if…

Finally, I saw a man and his daughter get out of their car and make their way over to playground. Maybe if I just followed them, I could figure this whole thing out. But as it turned out, he was just as confused as I was. Finding the door locked (there was no secret entrance), he asked me where everyone was. As his daughter ran onto the snowy playground, he made a few calls. “Man, are you serious?? School is cancelled today? Man, I had no idea!”

Listening to him, my heart sank. I was so excited for my first day, not to mention the fact that I had been awake since 7:45 on a Friday morning. As soon as his daughter heard us talking, she ran over and demanded to know why school was cancelled. It was supposed to be their Valentine’s Day party! She was dressed from head to toe in pink and red and showed me her bag with all of her Valentine’s Day cards. They were supposed to tye-dye t-shirts! And get candy! And now she wasn’t going to get to give her card to Joshua!

I was just as upset as she was. I had forgotten how much I loved Valentine’s Day as a kid. Having our Valentine’s Day party in elementary school was one of my favorite days of the whole year. I was always one of those kids who refused to buy Valentine’s cards from the store, and insisted on spending hours hand-making each card for my friends in my class. And I loved tye-dying too!! Her dad watched my face, and said, “You can’t cry too! I already have one kid to deal with!”

As I said goodbye to the pair of them and made my way back to dorms, I realized that even though I was upset to be missing out, I was so excited to go back. I had just gotten a little taste of my next Friday mornings and I was already looking forward to getting up and having fun. My life right now has been hectic and busy, but now I have time in my week to slow down, have fun, and be a kid again. Just as she was now looking forward to Monday when they would reschedule their Valentine’s party, I was looking forward to the next Friday, when I could have fun too. Sometimes volunteering doesn’t work out, and not everything goes as planned. But all that means is that it will be even better the next time.

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