One Hundred Years of Caring

 Federation Early Learning Services (FELS) Takes a Look Back

— by Leza Raffel

From small beginnings come great things. It’s a simple saying, but one that so accurately captures the history of Federation Early Learning Services (FELS), which this year is celebrating 100 years of providing child care and early childhood education in the Philadelphia Region, as well as age-appropriate introductions to Jewish traditions, values and rituals.

FELS’s roots are deep and neighborhood-centric. From humble beginnings, FELS has expanded to include 8 centers, 3 public school sites, and resources for more than one thousand students in Montgomery, Delaware and Philadelphia Counties. Many former students and familiesconsider the FELS family to be part of their extended family and appreciate the support and assistance that the FELS staff provided during difficult times. Equally impressive is the number of teachers who have remained committed and active with FELS. President and CEO Maddy Malis began her tenure in the classroom and, along with past executives such as Norman S. Finkel, have been instrumental in guiding FELS’s evolution into one of the leading child-care organizations in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

More after the jump. 

The Early Years: How It Began

The history of FELS began in 1911 with three nurseries: the Downtown Hebrew Day Nursery, the Strawberry Mansion Day Nursery and the Northern Hebrew Day Nursery, all located within a 15-mile radius of Center City and all committed to serve working parents. Families enrolled in the centers suffered from economic hardship caused by death, desertion, disability or divorce. The nursery leaders were immigrant women familiar with the languages and customs of the families attending the centers. Although the volunteer staff was largely untrained, they were dedicated and enthusiastic caregivers.

But the centers were often plagued by financial issues; survival was a struggle. Long before fund-raising became part of the framework of institutions, early directors implemented their unique style of acquiring donations: door-to-door solicitations and food donations from pushcart vendors. Economic necessity eventually caused some of these centers to become constituent agencies under the auspices of the Federation of Jewish Charities (FJC), now known as the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

Changes Followed WWII

Following World War II, veterans and their families began to move beyond Center City as FHA loans, inexpensive land and the automobile became more accessible. Many young, larger families were lured to the outskirts of the city and beyond. The demand for child care in these areas increased. Although the Downtown Children’ss Center remained in South Philadelphia, Strawberry Mansion Day Care Center relocated to the Northeast to meet the needs of the growing Jewish population and eventually became Samuel Paley Day Care Center.

With the construction of Paley, the leadership had a canvas upon which to design their future. “Our goal was to create a first-class child care center,” noted Mary Bert Gutman, the first president of the Northeast Day Care Services. “We traveled across the country to find programs with the physical attributes and programming concepts that were essential to great education,” she added.

The center, opening in 1966 with an initial enrollment of 100 preschoolers and students, offered enrichment programs for children, support services and family life education for parents, and Jewish programming for children and parents. Enrollment eventually increased to 240 children. In 1973 when the Downtown Center merged with Paley, Federation Day Care Services (FDCS) was born.

FDCS provided an array of services. It was a place where children learned, where families received the support they needed to find jobs, and where women learned to complete their taxes and, for many, to deal with divorce in a healthy way. FDCS’s new model of child care employed trained teachers, social workers and experienced administrators who were well versed in current early childhood education and counseling techniques. At its height, FDCS served one thousand children.

The Times Are Changing

Just as American society experienced a cultural revolution in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, FDCS was also undergoing rapid change. The increase in the number of working parents and the availability of public funding for child care accelerated expansion. Additional centers and satellite sites were opened to meet the demand. FDCS expanded to Montgomery, Delaware and Bucks Counties where the Jewishpopulation was thriving.

As FDCS moved to the Philadelphia suburbs, it continued to offer educational programs designed to meet and nurture the unique needs of students while fostering a respect and understanding of Jewish identity. Enrollment remained strong. In 2003, FDCS changed its name to Federation Early Learning Services (FELS) to stress the agency’s commitment to providing quality early childhood education.

A Century of Caring and Excellence

In one hundred years, many things have changed at FELS. The small neighborhood centers have blossomed into a strong cultural and educational force in the region. But what has remained the same is the spirit and determination that characterized the early years. For over a century, more than 40,000 children and their families have been enriched by FELS. FELS continues to operate as a warm and inclusive gateway to all families seeking a place in the Jewish community. It just goes to show, from small things, big things one day come.

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