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By Starla Vaughns Cherin

Lately, there are six to 10 children attending Susie C. Holley Cradle Nursery. Although its capacity is 110, the historic 55-year-old childcare center faces continual decline. Not in the immense caring and nurturing from teachers like Ms. Anna Francis, who this year celebrates 30 years teaching

Founded by the First Baptist Church Piney Grove, Cradle continues to maintain the clean, wholesome learning and growing environment where children learn numbers, colors and how to follow directions when they paint by number in Ms. Francis’s class. They are surrounded by fun interactive toys, signs showing them how to wash their hands and faces that smile at them.

The proof is in the success of Cradle’s alumni like Roland Faulks, Attorney Karen Black Baron, former Cradle director Evelyn Grooms, Westside Gazette Publisher Bobby Henry and its Editor Pamela Henry.

Yet, parents have stopped bringing their children and Cradle’s employees are a month behind in pay. Some bear the delay in payment because they know funds are also needed for payment of trash removal and electricity.


Keeping open

Johnson, the director from 2008 to 2010, returned in 2013 when she heard the nursery was about to shut its doors. “It’s a community treasure. So much good has come from here; I couldn’t just let it close,” John-son says.

When she returned she found the nursery’s van sold, a dwindled enrollment and no support to attract students.

Previously, Cradle received support from the community and organizations like Child-net, Workforce One and Mount Bethel, where parents choose from a list of child care centers. Johnson kept the enrollment up during the summer enough to continue VPK funding and they currently receive funding from Family Central which is based on a series of parental involvement steps and income.

In 2009 Frito Lay’s national sales team, in Fort Lauderdale for its annual sales meeting, sent 130 of its associates from 26 sales regions across the country to refurbish the nursery. Outdoor renovations included building a mulch-covered playground with a sandbox and new equipment on the lot facing Northwest Sixth Court, the repairing of windows and new tables and chairs used on the back lawn.

Interior renovations included painting, restoration of shelving, the replacement of ceiling tiles, cleaning the existing furnishings, new carpet and furniture, and updating the bathroom facilities.

Then Johnson and Francis, caring for 70 children, acknowledged the repairs were long overdue and hoped enrollment would increase.

Alumni Evelyn Grooms became the director in 2005 until 2007 when she cared for 98 children. A former daycare owner and certified in the Montessori Method of Preschool Education, Grooms studied under Dr. Elizabeth Caspari who was said to be the last living student of Dr. Maria Montessori.

She employed 12 teachers and had many paying families. “I realize the demographics have changed and often child-care has to be subsidized. Word of mouth is still the best marketing tool to get children into your daycare. We also cultivated volunteers among high school students who needed community service hours,” Grooms says.

Employee Dedication

Jamar Butts was one of the students who volunteered at Cradle Nursery when in high school and was later hired by Grooms working in janitorial, classroom activity prep and teacher’s aide capacities.

“I came when I was 15 doing my community hours and when I graduated from high school Ms. Grooms, hired me and I’ve been here ever since. My auntie Gail Inion worked here then and told me to come after school,” Butts says.

“After Ms. Grooms retired Ms. Johnson took over and we averaged between 50 to 85 kids. Sometimes over 100 kids and we were getting paid every two weeks. Something happened after she left. All the teachers loved her because she has a heart and she worshipped them. She was more of a community person.

“If you needed help she’d work out a payment plan. She worked with you. Ms. Mildred Hightower became the director when Ms. Johnson left in 2010. She didn’t have any sympathy for the parents. She stopped all that. Ms. Johnson would have field trips every week but it stopped when they sold the van.”

Hightower also an alumnus worked as a Cradle volunteer before becoming executive director for nearly two years, employing her daughter Adria Hightower to handle the finances.

Ms. Hightower spearheaded several community activities in support of Cradle. With the support of their Pastor, Dr. Derrick J. Hughes, the Society of Mission, of The Historical First Baptist Church Piney Grove, an event was held Aug. 11, 2012

Nov. 3, 2012 The Susie C. Holley Cradle Nursery, Inc. (Cradle) Board of Directors, and Alumni and Friends hosted an awards luncheon honoring its founder, Dr. Susie C. Holley and the original Board members; posthumously recognize the Pilot Club International, First Baptist Church Piney Grove, and those Board members who carried the torch for Cradle over the years.

Board Members

Founded in 1960 by the historic First Baptist Church Piney Grove Cradle’s building and property is rent free, Susie C. Holley operated Cradle in some capacity from the 40’s. Grooms remembering Mrs. Holley saw children playing in the neighborhood and gathered them together for educational and community activities.

Current Cradle Nursery Board of Directors President Lewis Tunnage has been involved with the company since 2007.  Marie Holloway-Harrison is still a board member and also one of the torch bearers of the organization and is listed in various capacities since 1998.

Other board members include Sharon Jordan, Louis Little and Lillie Fye who has been involved since 2005. Though dedicated in the a-mount of time on the board, within the past year hardly any board members have visited the nursery.

Johnson acknowledges Tunnage has donated funds to keep Cradle doors open and help with repairs but says, “He’s given so much and hasn’t been paid back. He’s losing money too.”

Tunnage refused to speak with the press without alumni Attorney Karen Black Baron. It took two weeks to set up a conference call, where Tunnage still didn’t speak much relying on the alumni for specific information regarding Cradle’s finances and lack of children.

Black Baron acknowledged Adria Hightower handles the finances and Johnson says, sometimes she helps pay the light bill. Hightower’s two children attend the day care.

“We traded the van and used the money for operating expenses,” says Black Baron, “but it was not enough. The State has criteria for instructional staff per student especially to qualify for VPK and that requires a certain level of operating funds.

“Many of the board members are elderly and not able to get around as much. There has been a lot of funding plans with the alumni, friends and fundraising but it is not enough.

“We need long range funding not short range funding. We can’t point the finger at anyone,” Black Baron says. “Banks go broke and have the most intelligent persons running them. We have been contributing our personal funds.  We did what we could.

“We are doing everything we can. With today’s economy, some of the repairs we hope to keep afloat.  We want the nursery to continue as long as it possibly can. Alumni, board of directors and community has Cradle at heart.



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