After 15 years and countless happy children, Miss Yvonne recently retired as manager of early childhood programs at Children’s Museum Pittsburgh.
Yvonne Atkinson was best known for the effortless way she connected with little ones, many of whom didn’t yet talk, and for the scooter that got her around the museum.
“There will be a big hole at the museum without Miss Yvonne,” says Jennifer Kilgore, who lives in the Mexican War Streets and considers the Children’s Museum her backyard. She and her husband, Todd, walked their 3-year-old daughter, Greta, to the museum for Tot Time just about every weekend for the last two years.
“Miss Yvonne is such an amazing individual,” Kilgore says. “She’s just so wonderful with children. She was so creative. And when her mom would come to the museum they were the dynamic duo.”
Miss Yvonne, 69, says working with kids has kept her younger than her years.
“First of all, they will say or do anything, and ask the craziest things,” she says. “They crack me up.”
While she is blessed with a natural ability to relate to youngsters, Miss Yvonne takes great joy from the more challenging ones.
“Really, really young children can be shy. They’re attached to their mothers,” she says. “I love it when I can get them to come on in and join in in the music and the singing and grab an instrument.”
She also appreciates that she can present a model of diversity for young minds.
“I’m African American. I’m a woman. I’m disabled,” she says. “So they can see me on a scooter, with a cane, or waddling around and say, ‘I can do that.’ ”
The scooter appeared after knee surgery and back problems made walking throughout the museum difficult. Six years ago, when her original scooter was ready for the junkyard, the museum found money in its budget to get her a new one, which she used on-site.
“They had the greatest retirement party for me and while I’m in tears and listening to all the adulations about this that and the other, somebody rides off the elevator with my scooter with a bunch of balloons and a flag on the back of it,” she says. “They told me to take it with me when I go.”
Scooter gift aside, Miss Yvonne says the most rewarding part of her work at the museum was knowing that the children she worked with would be prepared as they moved out into the world and became more independent.
“If they can listen and follow directions and want to participate, all the other things are going to come,” she says.
Miss Yvonne was hired by the education department to bring a measure of organization and structure to the early childhood program.
“She developed many programs that enriched the lives of so many families with kids at early ages,” says Bill Schlageter, the museum’s director of marketing. “Yvonne had such a wonderful personality and brought a tremendous about of creativity and energy to the table in terms of designing programs.”
Among those are a kindergarten readiness program, eye examinations for kids from underserved communities, a healthy smiles program, and, of course, Tot Time.
Tot Time is one she’ll always treasure. The program was full of hands-on activities, singing and dancing, and something called “Shake Your Sillies Out.”
“I always felt like the pied piper when we’d march out the door and around the back to the outside classroom,” Miss Yvonne says.
Outside, she and the kids would dig in the dirt and she’d give the kids watering cans to wet the garden. “A lot of times there wouldn’t be any water left,” she says. “They’d already watered their feet, my feet, and everything else along the way.”
Nadine Champsi, of O’Hara Township, says her kids — Mia, 7, and Finn, 5 — spent their early childhood Saturdays with Miss Yvonne.
“She’s very warm. She’s fantastic with the kids,” Champsi says. “She just can relate to them on a level I don’t think I’ve seen in an adult.”
Tot Time was well organized well for the age when sitting still isn’t an option. Atkinson always had multiple tables for the youngsters to explore age-appropriate activities.
“She helped them find things they could really concentrate on and get lost in the activity,” Champsi says. “You could tell she was having as much fun as they were.”
Following her retirement, Miss Yvonne moved to Erie to help take care of her mother who has dementia.
“I’ve been honored to work at such a wonderful place, with a staff that is as talented as it is creative,” she says.
But she’s not done working with little kids. She’s hoping to get involved with the ExpERIEnce Children’s Museum, the Erie Zoo and whatever else she can find.