As the home of Fred Rogers and his timeless Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood television series, Pittsburgh has long been devoted to the education of its youngest citizens. And let’s face it. As parents, we can use all the help we can get. The familiar African proverb says, “it takes a village to raise a child” and we couldn’t agree more.
Luckily, Pittsburgh is home to many men and women who care deeply about educating our kids–even before they head off to elementary school for the first time. These inspired individuals touch our lives everyday through their hard work at museums, libraries and community centers throughout the city.
Over the past few months, Kidsburgh asked hundreds of Pittsburgh parents to name early childhood educators who genuinely impact their families’ lives at places that are accessible and affordable. This group of five exceptional women emerged and we are proud to share their stories here.
Bonding with babies
“We just seem to click, babies and me,” says Kathy Maron-Wood (featured photo above), the senior librarian of the Children’s Department at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh‘s Oakland branch. Maron-Wood has been at the Carnegie Library for many years and her deep connection to the city’s babies keeps bringing parents back.
“We’ve been coming for over a year and it has been so important for my little girl. Ms. Kathy is always happy and patient and we love her,” says Karen Ward, who visits many of the baby classes at the city’s libraries but says this is her daughter’s favorite.
Maron-Wood earned her Masters of Library Science at the University of Pittsburgh. Immediately afterwards, she was hired by the Allegheny County Library Association and within six years was promoted to the lead librarian position in the Children’s Department at Oakland’s Carnegie Library. Many years later, her Storytime: Baby and Me and Baby Signing classes continue to draw crowds of caregivers and children.
Maron-Wood’s classes are peacefully active. Children enjoy shakers, swaying scarves, movement activities, songs and stories. At the end, Maron-Wood even pulls out her dulcimer and sings lullabyes. Older babies move around with the music, while younger ones sit rapt.
Maron-Wood enjoys the music just as much as the curious infants. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had more music in our lives? We’re stuck in traffic or waiting in the doctor’s office, getting frustrated. I think a song would really help us in those situations.” Not only does she love playing music and singing, but Maron-Wood also believes it can teach important skills to the littlest learners. “When we sing, there’s always a note for each syllable. As they learn the songs, it helps children first learn letter sounds and then speech and eventually becomes a precursor for reading.”
“I try very hard for the JCC to be a safe place to come and hang out with other moms, parents and caregivers,” says Lauren Bartholomae, the director of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s Family Life Department. Bartholomae joined the JCC in 2013 and has since dedicated herself to creating a supportive community of Pittsburgh families, Jewish or not.
Her success has largely been based on the introduction of new classes for young families like Sing and Schmooze Baby-Style and Sing and Schmooze Toddler-Style. These programs incorporate singing, movement and–central to her community-building mission–dedicated times when caregivers can get to know one another.
“It’s one thing if you have a place where you take the kids to play and then you leave,” says local parent, Mickey Narea. “But here you have the opportunity to talk to other parents and discuss things going on at home, safety issues, developmental milestones and just fun stories about our kids. It is definitely a place that fosters that community and making new friends.”
Bartholomae has an elementary education certificate and worked for the Pittsburgh Jewish Foundation before joining the JCC. Although her background in elementary ed certainly shines through at the JCC, her greatest strength lies in the relationships she’s building between people. “We want parents to get support from each other. That’s what a community of parents is all about. Having a place to go where you feel comfortable, where you can create that network.”
“I think if you’re going to have one skill in your life, reading would be it. It’s the basis for everything that you do,” says Dolores Colarosa, director of youth services and program coordinator at the Baldwin Borough Public Library. A long-time librarian within the Allegheny County Library Association, Colarosa transferred to Baldwin’s library last year. Almost immediately, she created an early literacy program and expanded the Children’s Department’s book collection dramatically.
Local parent Mary Wilson sees a definite change since Colarosa joined the library. “I think she has helped my kids become more interested in reading. My kids love to read before bedtime and they love coming to the library and checking out new books. It seems like Ms. Dolores has gotten a lot more new books in now and my older son is even trying to start to read.”
While Colarosa’s professional background is in business and public relations, her inspiration for becoming a librarian was deeply personal. “I’d go to Story Time in Bethel Park with my daughter and I’d be thinking ‘I would love for that to be me one day.” Years later, she applied and was hired at Bethel Park Library. Although she started by simply checking out books, she was quickly promoted because of her superb storytelling skills and programming savvy.
Her Bouncing Babies and Books class is one creative example of her special knack for connecting young children with books. Colarosa carefully picks one story for each session and then orders 15 additional copies of the book so that caregivers can follow along with their babies as she reads. “Caregivers can cuddle the kids, teach their children to turn pages, point to things together. It’s a great way to introduce little kids to the joy of reading and also help them bond with their caregivers.”
Prepping for preschool
Yvonne Atkinson’s enthusiasm has not waned in over 45 years of working with young children. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says. Over the last 12 years, she’s become famous for her work as the early childhood programs manager at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh where she deftly navigates the tricky task of teaching the youngest children school readiness skills. “We work on things like listening, making choices, following directions. The kids then naturally take these skills with them as they go on to preschool and kindergarten.”
Jenn Matta, a Tot Time regular, says, “This is a nice introduction to preschool, with a fun and caring teacher.” Another caregiver agrees. “Stella loves the different activities each week. This is a great place for children to interact. Ms. Yvonne is great at including all the children.”
Atkinson has worked in early childhood education for most of her adult life. She started at the Martin Luther King Center in Erie where she was the director of their early childhood program for 21 years. She then moved to Pittsburgh to care for her grandmother and subsequently was hired by the Children’s Museum.
A big part of Atkinson’s success at the museum has been her sensitivity to the unique needs of toddlers. During her tot classes, she carefully balances free play and more structured activities like snack, story and music times–all the while giving toddlers the green light if they feel the urge to roam. “We try to go with the flow and leave things pretty open-ended and flexible. Some kids want to play with toys instead of listening at story time and that’s okay.”
Empowering with energy
“I’m giving families what they need to be empowered and to reach their full potential and I just love that. I love that. I love that. I love people having the best that they deserve,” says Ingrid Kalchaler, the endlessly energetic head of youth services at Shaler North Hills Library. Kalchaler attracts a loyal fan base from all over the city, drawn to both her unbridled enthusiasm and her magnetic personality.
“We love Miss Ing! She lights up the room and captivates children and adults alike. Her enthusiasm is contagious and she has been a blessing to our children’s early learning. We are so thankful to have Shaler Library’s programs and Miss Ing’s talent!” says one local parent, Nora Duncan.
An ordained American Baptist minister, Kalchaler shifted careers to become a librarian over a decade ago. Although her decision to leave the ministry was “really super hard,” Kalchaler believes that her work in the library is just another form of the same vocation. “Here at the library, we are empowering people just like we do as pastors. We are helping them find the strength that is already there for them. We don’t have all the answers, but librarians are conduits. We give them access to the resources that are already out there.”
Kalchaler runs several classes for young children at the Shaler, Sewickley and Millvale libraries. Her toddler and preschool story times are particularly intense. Thirty minutes are packed with high energy songs, dancing, movement, signing, play and interactive storytelling. The kids are having so much fun with her, they don’t even realize they’re learning along the way. Local parent, Beth Hoffman, says it best, “Miss Ing is a gift to all children. She lets kids be kids and celebrates with them.”
We join many Pittsburgh families in saying “thank you” to these five educators for their dedication to our city’s youngest children. You are Kidsburgh heroes in our eyes!
Please look for future articles in this series profiling exceptional school age and teen educators. Also, we encourage you to comment below if you would like to publicly recognize another early childhood educator in Pittsburgh.
Featured photo: Kathy Maron-Wood, Photo by Brian Cohen
This article was written by Krystia Nora with contributions by Nadine Champsi.