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Mary Johnson’s Saunders to retire after long childcare career

MIDDLEBURY — It’s Monday morning at Middlebury’s Mary Johnson Children’s Center (MJCC), and the ambiance is like Grand Central Station.
Staff are busy ushering a group of children outdoors for playtime.
Others are helping kids pick up well-used toys and books.
The intoxicating odor of a home-cooked meal wafts from the kitchen, signaling lunchtime is not far away.
Each scene is enveloped in a cacophony of young voices, some registering astounding decibel levels.
It’s a lot of commotion and din, but Executive Director Barbara Saunders has grown accustomed to it, having been an MJCC administrator since 1986.
“I don’t even hear it,” she smiled.
That statement will ring particularly true this May, when Saunders will retire from the center. She said the sound of silence will seem foreign and at first, a little bit frightening.
But Saunders said it’s time for her to step away.
“I think the center is at a point where it needs another level of management expertise, and it’s poised to grow and get more solid,” Saunders said. “Somebody who’s younger, with more energy, should take that journey with the center.”
Saunders’ journey with the center began during the mid-1980s.
She and her husband Richard moved to Middlebury from Austin, Texas, in 1985. Richard had landed a job at Middlebury College, where he continues to teach and direct the Museum of Art. Barbara fit the college’s definition of a “trailing spouse,” trying to pin down a job of her own.
With degrees in English and Library Science, Saunders wasn’t sure how and where to market herself. But she got her start as education director at the Vermont  State Craft Center in Middlebury’s Frog Hollow, where Nancie Dunn — current owner of the Sweet Cecily shop at 42 Main St. — was overseeing the gallery.
Dunn noticed how well Saunders interacted with people of all ages, and knew her talents were transferrable to many other vocations.
“She was so bright, so thoughtful, so nice to be around,” Dunn recalled. “When I heard that Mary Johnson, where my kids had gone, was looking for a director, I mentioned to Barbara that she would be a wonderful addition and it would be a really fulfilling and rewarding career.”
Saunders, proud mom of an infant, decided to apply for the MJCC co-director’s post that was being vacated by Sonja Olson.
“(Childcare) was not my background,” Saunders said. “ I think they took a chance on me, and I was lucky.”
STARTING OUT
So she took her place alongside fellow co-director Bonnie McCardell in a childcare organization that had been established in 1970 by a group of Middlebury-area parents who had decided “the community needed a safe, supportive program for the children of families who needed to work outside of the home,” according to a historical narrative on the MJCC website. “They wanted to ensure that children, particularly the children of struggling single mothers, were being well cared for.”
The MJCC in those days had a staff of nine full- and part-time workers providing childcare services in its home base, a renovated and expanded 19th-century farmhouse at 81 Water St.
It was indeed a different era, in terms of the mainstream perspective on childcare responsibilities. There was a now-archaic expectation that women should stay at home and care for the child and that the husband should be the lone provider for the household.
Now dual-income families are more the norm rather than the exception, but back then some women who joined the workforce took some heat, Saunders noted.
“The way we looked at young children, there was a lot of shaming of women working outside the home,” she recalled. “It was, ‘You want to work and put your children in childcare because you want to have more money. You want to have the fancier car. You want the boat and expensive vacation.’ And that was no more true than it is today. The change was threatening for some people.”
Fortunately not so much in Vermont, one of the most progressive states in the union. Saunders noted the MJCC quickly gained a devoted following.
“There was a lot of spirit in the community — just as there is today — for having wonderful places for young children, and Mary Johnson was one of those places,” Saunders recalled. “You walked in the door and there was just so much energy and excitement and really wonderful things happening.”
Under the guidance of Saunders, McCardell, Ilana Snyder and other administrators through the years, the MJCC built a reputation for helping children learn while encouraging their creativity. It wasn’t a place where kids would simply be handed a snack and a coloring book.
“The effects of high-quality, early childhood experiences for children have lifelong positive results, and that’s really rewarding,” Saunders said, citing studies showing children exposed early to learning and organized play are more likely to be successful and safe as adults.
“We have made it to the public dialogue.”
YEARS OF GROWTH
In a big way.
MJCC now employs around 100 full- and part-time staff caring for more than 350 children throughout the county. Along with delivering early childhood services at 81 Water St., the Cooperative Nursery School in East Middlebury and at the Orwell Village School, the center runs a variety of after-school programs in Middlebury, Salisbury, Weybridge, Bristol, New Haven and Starksboro.
The organization is currently planning a early-childcare facility off Armory Lane in Vergennes that Saunders hopes will be up and running within four years.
Like all quality organizations, the MJCC is constantly evolving, never resting on its laurels. To wit: This past fall, the center launched a new infant-care program at its adjacent Barrera House on Water Street. Infant care continues to be the most sought-after childcare service in the county. The hands-on complexity of that service means providers are limited in the number of infant slots they can offer. The new Mary Johnson program serves eight infants.
Waiting lists are the norm.
“I think every program in Addison County has a waiting list,” Saunders said. “I think the feeling is the community has done an excellent job in responding to the need for early childhood services for the 3- to 5-year-old population… It’s the birth to 3 where there’s really a crunch. It is incredibly expensive care to provide. It’s a real challenge for a center to offer infant care and still be financially viable.”
Vermont’s recently enacted universal pre-K law has provided subsidies for kids to get early childcare. While the new law hasn’t been a financial winner for the center, it has reinforced the importance of building a solid educational foundation for kids sooner than in kindergarten.
“It’s a validation that unless they address what happens from 3 to 5, their outcomes for K-12 aren’t going to change,” Saunders said.  “Having those kids coming to into school with positive experiences and being ‘ready’ to be successful, benefits everybody.”
Saunders keeps in her desk a copy of “Childcare Exchange” magazine from the late-1980s. On its cover is a photo of then-presidential candidates George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, with the headline, “Great Change is coming to early childhood,” implying the 1988 election was going to usher in a new era of services for children.
“I keep that as a reminder to myself that, ‘Well, maybe not; it’s a long slog,’” Saunders said with a smile. “Even though there hasn’t been the public will yet to put financial resources into the birth-to-5 programming, there is significantly more public understanding that this is a critical place to put energy.”
LOOKING AHEAD
There remain serious challenges in the childcare field, most notably employee turnover — a product of the current wage structure in the childcare industry.
“It’s not a high-wage job,” she said. “It’s really a struggle to attract and retain staff.”
That said, Mary Johnson has staff who, like Saunders, have been on board for two or more decades. She’ll miss those and other colleagues as she transitions to retirement.
“Everyone here has such a positive attitude, from the board on down,” she said.
McCardell, praised Saunders for her hard work on behalf of the center.
“Barbara has continued to expand Mary Johnson’s reputation as a model for Vermont early childhood programs,” she said through an email. “Under her leadership, the center has imaginatively added programs and sites — always with an eye for meeting the diverse needs of families and children in Addison County. Working with (former Co-director) Ilana Snyder, she has set high standards, advocated at the state level for the needs of children and families, developed a viable fiscal model and yet always made time to embrace a crying child or listen to a parent in need. Barbara’s soft and welcoming presence coupled with a calm and thoughtful manner will be greatly missed.”
In retirement, Saunders plans to devote more time to her role as a Middlebury Planning Commission member, and of course spend more quality time with her six grandchildren, one of whom is an MJCC client.
“I can’t imagine a more joyful and exciting place to work,” she said. “I feel I have been so lucky. I still thank Nancie Dunn when our paths cross.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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