LOVE is a VERB
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” – Jesus, in Matthew 7:12
It’s a simple notion we teach our children at a young age and what it’s really saying is that our actions speak volumes when it comes to reflecting the love of Jesus to others. Jesus often shared in sermons, in stories and in actions just how important it is to treat everyone with love, kindness and respect. In fact, Jesus declared that one of the greatest commandments we have as Christ followers is to love our neighbor as ourselves.
While the Sanctuary and Fenn Hall buzz with worshippers on Sunday mornings, there is a community who gathers on McFarlin’s first floor every day of the week and are faithfully living out what it means to follow Jesus’ example of loving every one of God’s beloved children authentically and unconditionally. Every week, over 200 infants, toddlers and preschoolers enter the doors of McFarlin’s Day Care and Children’s Day Out programs to learn, grow and thrive.
Michelle Dykes has been the Director of the CDO program for 5 years. Her previous decade of experience as an early childhood teacher combined with her passion for children, relationships with families and her faith, has given her the chance to merge all her strengths and lead her program in a way that cares for the whole family. “You get to walk alongside such a diverse mix of people in big and little ways,” Michelle says, “and to be part of so many stories—children, families, staff—it’s such a unique situation.”
Justine Martin, director of the Day Care, has worn many hats during her 12 years on staff. Moving from classroom teacher, to lead teacher, to lesson plan development and then Associate Director to Director, Justine has uniquely combined her degrees, years of experience and continued professional development to help implement the kind of environment that allows every family to flourish in community with other families.
“It’s been the biggest privilege of my life to be engaged in this way with families,” Justine says with a smile on her face. “Raising children is a challenge, and childcare is a fun challenge because it’s about meeting parents and children where they are in each season of their life and helping them grow and develop and thrive.”
Within the walls of these classrooms, every family brings with them their own background, their own family dynamic, their own culture, their own value system and their own parenting style. Grandparents raising grandchildren, single parent households, same gender parents, different gender parents, interracial families, foster families, adoptive families, immigrant families, blended families, and multi-generational families are welcomed and valued here. In fact, the foundational message that grounds everything the childcare programs do comes from their mission statement: “An inclusive community where all are welcomed, valued and appreciated.”
Instead of shying away from differences, every classroom makes an effort to celebrate and represent each different type of family. Families and children can see themselves in the books that are read, the lessons that are taught and the values of love, kindness and respect that are instilled in every child. Because of the strong diversity of the staff and families alike, children also get to experience learning and celebrating cultures that are different from their own. Childcare staff and families from Pakistan are an integral part of the Spring lessons on different cultures around the world. When families celebrate cultural holidays like Hanukah and Chinese New Year, parties are thrown, and lessons are taught on the history of these important cultural traditions.
This approach to celebrating culture and diversity is an important part of a child’s development. “Social and emotional development is key,” Justine explains. “We’re teaching them to be human right now. They’ll go to elementary school soon, but they have to learn to be people with people, and that means seeing people for who they are. The expectation is that every kid who goes through this program will treat everyone they meet with kindness and respect and love just like Jesus did.”
Michelle echoes Justine in her own words. “I think the world is hurting and broken in a lot of really significant ways, she says, “but I do think we have this great opportunity where our knowledge and strengths and passions reside with these young humans to make a difference by each child knowing their worth and knowing they’re accepted exactly as they are, but also seeing that in all of their peers.
Another foundational principle guiding care for families is trust, and that begins with open and honest communication with the family from the very beginning. Justine sees this most clearly with parents who bring in their first child.
“Our first-time families come on blind trust and recommendations and then they bring the most precious thing that God’s ever given them, and they just leave them here,” says Justine. “We build on that initial trust and take the time to really get to know families so that when there are challenges, the trust built allows us to navigate it together and find solutions together.”
Sarah Gaffner, parent of two alumni children and one child currently enrolled in the Day Care relates to those initial parent jitters. “Especially as a first-time mom with my oldest, navigating new waters and new territory, I feel like I always had questions and they always gave answers in a loving and embracing way,” Sarah says. “It’s really a group effort to make sure that the parents know all the ways their child is learning and growing in all aspects of their development.”
Katie Cruz-Long, who currently has two children in the Day Care program, can attest to the way the staff builds relationships with parents. “One of the nicest things is that you don’t feel like that bad parent when your kid is going through a phase or a normal growth pattern or might be struggling.” says Katie. “It’s a supportive and nurturing environment and if there’s ever an actual problem, they sit down with you and work to find a solution and how they can best help you.”
Relationship-building also happens in the classrooms between teachers and children. The classroom structure has been uniquely built for team teaching. This means there are at least two teachers in every classroom, allowing each teacher to lean into their strengths. This also allows different teachers to relate to children in different ways, providing deeper connections with children and better care. “Everybody gets to bring something to the table and the education is well-rounded and exceptional in that way”, says Michelle.
Because of the classroom structure, one thing the staff can rely on when personal challenges or tragedy hit home is the staff support they receive. Madisen Myers has been on staff with the CDO program for 8 years and knows what it’s like to feel the support of her work family. “For years I struggled with multiple auto-immune diseases,” Madisen said, “and that was a big thing for a time being out every two weeks, but they made sure I had the help and resources I needed. I didn’t have to worry about the classroom because all the teachers worked so well together they were able to run my classroom when I couldn’t be there.”
Other staff members have found a renewed joy in life in the way they feel like they belong to a loving and accepting community. Liza Graham began teaching at the Day Care almost two years ago after feeling unsatisfied with her job at a different childcare center. She immediately realized how different the staff culture was here. “We are completely supported unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been in that we are given the resources we need as teachers in order to help the students thrive,” Liza says. “This job has really given me a second wind and joy in life I thought had passed me by. It’s been life-changing for me because I don’t worry about waking up every day worried about my next phase of life. I found my tribe and found my home.”
And that’s what it’s all about. Changing Lives That Change the World. McFarlin’s mission statement applies to every single way that McFarlin’s Jesus followers interact with their neighbors, community and the world.
When McFarlin was built, it was dedicated to the youth of Oklahoma, praying and believing that generations of children would grow up learning about the transformative love of Jesus and take that love to a hurting world. And that’s exactly what Justine and Michelle hope for. “They say in order to affect change you start small,” Justine says. “You find something you’re passionate about and then you get into it and invest in it. And that’s what we do here Monday- Friday. We invest in what we hope is going to be the change that goes out into the world and make a better world.” Michelle adds, “In our little corner we have this opportunity to potentially make long-lasting, much needed change to make the world a more beautiful place that it should be.”