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Appalachian Scene: Norma Gray: Leading the Way for Children

by James E. Casto

You can see it in the happy faces of toddlers at the Enterprise Child Development Center. You can hear it in the laughter of youngsters as they play baseball in a summer program for school-age kids. You can sense it in the pride felt by students who've completed a demanding two-year apprenticeship program in working with young children.

When educators talk about successful child development programs, this is what they have in mind—making a positive difference in the lives of young children and their families. For 27 years, River Valley Child Development Services has been making that kind of difference for children and families in communities throughout southern West Virginia.

Founded by Norma Gray of Huntington in 1972, River Valley started as an early childhood demonstration center, training teachers to work in kindergarten classrooms. In the years since, it has grown significantly, operating a wide variety of programs and serving thousands of young children.

Today, River Valley operates in nine West Virginia counties. It manages four nationally accredited child care centers, eight after-school programs, early intervention services for children with special needs, parent education services for at-risk families, and child care resource and referral services. Statewide, it operates an apprenticeship program for individuals who work with young children—a program now being used as a national model.

All of these programs came about through the leadership of Norma Gray.

Cathy Jones Forsythe, who took over as River Valley's executive director when Gray retired in December 1998, credits much of the agency's growth and success to Gray's constant willingness to chart new opportunities—and explore new avenues of funding.

"She reads and she knows what's going on," says Forsythe. "She always did her homework, and when an opportunity came up, she was ready. Norma truly understands children and child development. She has the wisdom and the insight to see which things are a fad and which can really make a difference."

National Recognition

River Valley and Gray both have won national honors in recent months. The Program Recognition Project spearheaded by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation and the National Association for the Education of Young Children selected River Valley as one of the top ten early childhood education programs in the nation. The honor came after representatives visited the Huntington area, went on home visits with River Valley workers, and conducted extensive interviews with administrators, staff members, and parents.

Gray herself was successfully nominated by West Virginia Governor Cecil H. Underwood for the 1999 Lewis Hine Award, presented by the National Child Labor Committee. West Virginia First Lady Hovah Underwood joined Gray and nine other Lewis Hine Award honorees from around the nation at ceremonies January 28 in New York City. The awards are named in honor of noted photographer, sociologist, and humanist Lewis W. Hine, who documented the deplorable working conditions in many early-20th-century industries that used child labor. His disturbing images of exploited and abused young workers helped bring about enactment of the first national child labor laws.

"Hovah and I were proud to nominate Dr. Gray for this distinguished award," said Governor Underwood. "Because of her efforts to further preschool and early education programs, Dr. Gray has played an instrumental role in ensuring that West Virginia's youth have a positive growing experience.

"I wish we could duplicate Norma and put her all over the state; she really is irreplaceable."

Gray is a native of Huntington ("I don't live more than five blocks away from where I was born") and after high school was a music major at Marshall University. Marriage and a baby daughter interrupted her education. "I was a stay-at-home mom for a while, but when my daughter went to school, I went back to school, too." On her return to Marshall, she switched her field of study, earning a bachelor's degree in early childhood education. Later she would earn two graduate degrees in educational administration—a master's from Marshall and an Ed.D. from West Virginia University.

What today is River Valley was established in 1972 as the Region III Early Childhood Demonstration Center, a component of a statewide system of regional centers. The purpose of the centers, Gray explains, "was to demonstrate appropriate programs for preschool children, prior to implementing kindergartens in the state's public schools."

John B. Himelrick Sr. of Charleston, now retired, was then with the state department of education and was a key player in planning and opening the regional demonstration centers. He vividly recalls Gray's efforts at the time. "She was highly knowledgeable, extremely dependable, and tremendously committed."

During the Region III center's second year of operation, proposals were submitted to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to fund two child development programs for children from birth to age six. At the end of that year, with the state's school systems now ready to offer kindergarten programs, the state decided to close the regional demonstration centers.

Thanks to ARC funding, the Region III center stayed open, shifting its focus to younger children, offering a demonstration day-care project and a learning disabilities program. "ARC rescued us then," says Gray. "And it would come to our aid more than once in the future."

In 1979, for example, ARC funding enabled Region III to implement a preschool screening project in Mason and Lincoln Counties. The program screened all kindergartners in order to identify those with learning problems.

In 1980, Children's Place, a new $700,000 day care center, was opened in Huntington's Guyandotte neighborhood. ARC provided a grant to help pay for the building, with additional funding coming from the city, through the federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. "The center," says Gray, "was the first in the city to care for infants and toddlers, and also had a special services area—speech therapy, physical therapy, and health services—as well as a parent education resource center."

But despite opening on that high note, the 1980s would prove a difficult decade. "Our greatest accomplishment," says Gray, "was to survive the many federal funding cuts without lessening the quality of the services." At points, some programs had to be cut and staff reduced. In the summer of 1988, the agency appeared doomed. Staffers were given notice their jobs would be terminated, effective July 1. At the very last minute, the afternoon of June 30, word came that limited state funds would be available for the coming year.

Years of Growth

With a new lease on life but recognizing a need to review its mission, the agency undertook a lengthy self-study. The bylaws were revised to broaden both the geographic area served and the scope of services offered, and a name change was proposed. The name eventually selected: River Valley Child Development Services.

The 1990s have been years of growth for River Valley.

In May 1991, the first class of 22 students graduated from the Apprenticeship for Child Development Specialists (ACDS) program. Developed in cooperation with the West Virginia Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training, this course provides four semesters of training to individuals working with young children. It since has been expanded statewide, and after being featured at the White House Conference on Child Care in 1997, is being used by the U.S. Department of Labor as a model for other states. The Pittsburgh-based Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation has extended the ACDS program significant financial support.

In 1993, says Gray, "the board of directors took a giant leap of faith and borrowed the money to build the Early Learning Child Development Center near downtown Huntington." Eventually, three foundation grants and CDBG funds were awarded to help construct and equip the building.

And in 1994, when Huntington was named an Urban Enterprise Community by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it used part of its $3 million grant to undertake construction of the new Enterprise Child Development Center, which opened in the city's west end in January 1997.

"Norma's talents were never more apparent," says Huntington mayor Jean Dean of the Enterprise Child Development Center. "She had input into the design of the center, helped develop its program, and assisted in the hiring of the staff. It is now one of the few accredited centers in the area and has a long waiting list."

In August 1997, children using toy shovels broke ground for the new Children's Center at Hamlin in Lincoln County. Raising the money needed to complete the center was difficult, but, says Gray, the "happy faces of the children, parents, and staff" at the center's April 24, 1998, dedication made the struggle worthwhile.

Effective October 1, 1997, one of River Valley's most used programs, Link Child Care Resource and Referral Services, was awarded a continuing contract for three more years and its service area expanded to meet the growing demand for its services. Link now has branch offices in Logan and Lincoln Counties, in addition to its main office in downtown Huntington. For the convenience of families, there are outreach sites in several locations in each of the eight counties the program serves. Staff members make scheduled visits to the outreach sites once or twice each week.

After considering a number of proposals, Marshall University has selected River Valley as the provider of choice to manage the university's new child development center, a collaborative effort between the university and the city of Huntington. Marshall is supplying the land and the architect, and the city is providing $1 million in CDBG money to pay the construction costs. The center, scheduled to open in the fall of 1999, will accommodate children of faculty, students, and the community.

"What we have been able to accomplish," says Gray, "is due in large measure to the dedication and the hard work of our board members over the years. I think what I'm proudest of is that everything we've done has been a team effort."

Teamwork, agrees Mayor Dean, is critically important in any worthwhile effort. But that, she adds, doesn't change the fact that Norma Gray has been "the guiding light" to all those working on behalf of children in the Huntington area. "She knew what the children needed—and she knew how to stretch a dollar to the utmost in order to provide it."

James E. Casto is associate editor of the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, West Virginia.