South Knoxville's My Village Provides Day Care for Underprivileged Families

Part of a Series: Scene & Heard: Holiday Edition '09

Slices of life from Knoxville's neighborhoods: North, South, East, and West

What makes Knoxville unique? We often point to the cultural and entertainment offerings downtown, but most residents identify Knoxville with their own neighborhoods outside of the center city. And while they may exist far apart, sometimes in very different circumstances, these places collectively make up the Knoxville experience. In this second edition of our ongoing series, we visit different parts of Knoxville to simply record what we see, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city.

SOUTH: My Village Child Development Center

From the outside, My Village looks like a public school, which is a nice way of saying it looks like a prison. Barbed wire sits atop a chain-linked fence that surrounds a red-brick building. White paint chips gather on windowsills under clear-ish glass. Today the cold, mono-grey sky dulls even the brightest colors of two playground sets trapped behind still another fence, and there's something unsettling about seeing the playthings of children trapped behind so much twisted metal.

But the defensive response to the world feels somewhat justified. En route to the day care, one passes a series of vacant buildings; a rundown "SavWay" grocery store, whose name jars the mind and seems a cynical bait-and-switch for a more popular franchise; a narrow, single-car tunnel under the railway, bodiless voices emanating from the brownish-grey overgrowth; and the token symbol of white, rural poverty: the rusting car placed on cinder blocks in a forlorn yard.

Yet the cold, impersonal shell gives way to softer displays of security inside. A man atop a ladder is painting the hallway a pleasant shade of yellow, covering a nonchalant off-white with a warm color that says, This is a place to be trusted.

In the front office, cartoon cutouts of doe-eyed children dressed as pilgrims (or rather, as someone's cartoonish idea of pilgrims) shout "BE THANKFUL" to no one in particular, while incessantly chipper women busy themselves with morning chores.

A box of construction-paper collages sits underneath a table in the center of the room. Pulling them out, each reads, "Happy Thanksgiving, My Village Pre-K" and contains some iteration of the idea that the outline of a child's hand looks an awful lot like a turkey. From this cardboard box, these place mats will head to the laminator, then to the Montgomery Village housing project's annual Thanksgiving dinner.

Moving about is Brooke Seeliger, the program director at My Village. Her face is cordoned off by short hair, brushed forward and to the left, and thick, rectangular frames. She started here only Oct. 1, but it's already become a truism among teachers that she's turned the place around "360 degrees."

"We have been here every weekend until midnight some nights, fixing these rooms and getting them ready for assessment," Seeliger says. "New toys, new floors—everything."

Seeliger heads into one of the rooms recently remade. Her "ones," or 1-year-olds, sit in a semicircle and stare, mouths open, as they take in the shape of a stranger's face. Men are a rarity here, but they look unimpressed as they await their lunch.

An older woman, a teacher, cuts small, overcooked slices of pizza (a seldom offering) into even smaller pieces, placing them next to Styrofoam reservoirs of green beans and peaches. Cups of milk await deployment on a tray beneath. The children are mostly quiet.

Moving on to the infants' room, new cribs line the back wall. There are two children, a girl and a boy, and a teacher for each. An Indian woman sits on a tiny chair, cooing the boy, who shouts excitedly and appears well-tempered. The little girl, who just celebrated her first birthday and will soon move to the ones' room, is hard at work trying to get more of this pizza stuff into her mouth. In a bold maneuver, she's managed to land a significant chunk of solid cheese and tomato sauce on her shoulder, where it rests. A flash across her face registers something's amiss, but she seems confident someone else will take care of it.

Farther down the hall is the after-school room. Besides a teacher, Sandy Reece, it's empty—the 12 elementary-age kids are now at one of four schools: South Knoxville, Mount Olive, Dogwood, or Mooreland Heights. The kindergartners will arrive at about 1:15, followed a couple of hours later by the 1st through 4th graders, full of energy.

"We do story times, we do snacks, we have all kinds of center activities," Reece says, becoming animated. "We study trees and plants, and the kindergartners actually grew their own little plants."

"With literacy being such a huge focus in schools right now, we're trying to connect that with what's going on here," Reece adds.

The latest edition of a newsletter produced by the older children reads, "We are also starting a new activity. It is called the caring tree. It helps us with our manners and politeness. We have a kindness patrol to look out for people that are being nice and generous. If you would like more info, contact Ms. Sandy."

When not reading, writing stories or busting kids for being nice and generous, the after school children have been working on turkey centerpieces to complement the pre-K's place mats for Montgomery Village's meal.

My Village Child Development Center began there, less than a mile away, in Montgomery Village, just off of Maryville Pike. In the mid '90s, a three-year-old was seen "wandering around. Nobody knew where the parents were, nobody knew what was going on. So it was like, ‘Wow, we need a place for these kids,'" Seeliger recounts.

That place became the Montgomery Village Child Development Center, started by Jean Delaney, executive director of Montgomery Village Ministry. In 2000, the same board opened a larger day care here, the former site of Vestal Elementary on Willoughby Street, called Montgomery Village New Beginnings, to serve a greater number of working parents. A month later the small day care at Montgomery Village burned down, and so its services were combined into My Village, a name its young patrons could more easily pronounce. My Village continues to draw many children from the housing project.

Karen Cameron, assistant director, has been at My Village since its inception in 2000. "Most of [the families], it's single parents. Some of them, it's just the father raising the child. Some of them work—I'd say about half and half... the other half is either on some kind of family assistance through the state," Cameron says. "You have some that are in foster care, some that are on their way to foster care."

The majority of families are able to afford the day care's services through a state welfare program called Families First. The day care also receives funding through the United Way, grants, the state lottery, and private donations.

"What I've noticed here is there's a different appreciation level. Meaning, the parents here are happy that their children get a hot meal," explains Seeliger, who came to My Village from a job at Arnstein Jewish Community Center, in West Knoxville. "They're happy that they have a loving place to take their kids while they're at work, so it's a different world."

Cameron says stability is the most important thing My Village provides. "We do a three-course meal: breakfast, lunch and snack, because we are a food program.... A lot of kids, they don't get that at home," Cameron says. "You never know how their home is. So just saying ‘Good morning,' giving them a smile and a hug, it changes a lot of kids' lives."