There aren’t many people who can say they’ve helped to teach thousands of the very youngest minds in the Town, but one person who can make such a boast is Donna (Blaikie) Coleman, who retired from the Kennedy Center Early Childhood Head Start program last July after 50 years.
Coleman will be honored by the Kennedy Center on Friday night in the Knights Hall, with a time and the announcement of a scholarship in her name – a scholarship that will help fund training for anyone from Charlestown pursuing Early Childhood Education.
“I was so fortunate to work with great people all those years,” she said. “Some are no longer with us, but they took me under their wings because I was the baby of the Center at the time. Lo and behold, time passed and I became the old lady of the Center. I’ve taught so many kids and now I’ve taught many of their parents. This particular year, I had a great grandson in the room of one of the students I taught at the first. That was pretty special. I was very fortunate to see so many of the kids grow up and when I see them on the street, they recognize me. That’s just a great feeling.”
Coleman told the Patriot-Bridge she began her career through a knock at the door.
When Head Start first started 50 years ago, they came around the Town knocking on doors looking to recruit students and volunteers. Coleman’s two siblings qualified for the program, and her mother agreed to start volunteering at the Kennedy Center.
It wasn’t long before her mother suggested she also volunteer temporarily, a situation that turned into a wonderful 50-year career.
“I got out of high school and wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do,” said Coleman. “My mother suggested that I come volunteer down at the Center until I figured out what I wanted to do. I was 17 and spent a year volunteering there, and when I was 18 they offered me a job. We had my mother there, the two little ones, and then I was there. It’s a program that’s always been so close to my heart because of how much it helped my family…It was like a whole family there. That’s what I always say to people. It’s the JFK ‘Family’ Service Center. It’s called a family center.”
Since that time, her dad has worked there while in between jobs, her sister is a teacher, her brother worked there, her aunt worked there, a cousin worked there and her niece also works there. For Coleman, it was a family venture in the literal sense.
Coleman said she and her mother were both studying to pursue their education in Early Childhood at the Center when her mother suddenly died, leaving her father with seven children. While Coleman went on to finish her education, it was the Center that kept her family intact during such a tragic loss.
It’s what helped her truly sink her life into teaching the youngest minds in Charlestown, and in a program that caters to the most vulnerable. She said she has learned over the years that children need adults to come down to their level when they’re scared, and she means that quite literally.
“A lot of times, especially when they’re scare, you have to just get to their level – sit on the floor or on the small chair,” she said. “It’s scare for them to look up at you, but they feel better if you’re right on their level…It’s all about trying to listen and spacing things out. You can’t rush things. You have to move very slow. Sometimes it’s the parents you have to comfort and usher out the door. Many times, it’s the parents that are crying too.”
Coleman said she didn’t want a party on her retirement, but said she is looking forward to Friday. She said the Center was such a big part of her life, she can’t imagine not saying a proper good-bye.
“I grew up there,” she said. “It was the family place for us. I literally did grow up there. I started when I was 17 and continued for 50 years – and all because my mother suggested I volunteer there until I figured out what I wanted to do. I guess I figured that out, and I never wanted to leave.”