By Kesha Williams
When Peggy Eller graduated from Appalachian State University in 1977 with a degree in health physical education and recreation with a minor in business, she never dreamed of a career in child care.
“I wanted to coach sports, work as a physical education teacher or teach business education. Coaching sports, that was pretty optimistic in 1977 for a female,” Eller said. “I’ve always enjoyed being around children, their joy, their laughter, inquisitiveness. I wish I could have written down all their funny sayings.”
A couple of part-time jobs eventually led Eller down a long career path in child care that ended this summer as the director of the university’s Child Development Center. Now, she fondly recalls 28 years of service there that spanned three names for the facility, three locations and more heart-warming client notecards than the bulletin board inside her office could hold. The notecard authors praised her for assorted reasons: her stellar example as a child care provider; her creation of a safe place for kids; the many lives she touched each year with her passion for youngsters; and her amazing team of loving, caring and compassionate teachers.
Eller is generous with praise for that team of teachers, assistants and volunteers. She proudly notes that team included men and women over the years who provided essential daycare for the Appalachian Mountaineers. The center allowed university students to study and university employees to work in close proximity to their youngsters. Its hours were conveniently set to meet the needs of the parents. The center serves 68 students and has a waiting list of about 150.
“My teachers are the heartbeat of the center. We share the workday which is 10 hours long. All my teachers are parents and they come with a wealth of knowledge. We understand the parent who is crying in the car after dropping off their kid. Some can hardly believe it’s time to separate from their young child,” Eller said.
“Some (children) have a hard time with that and some do great. The key is to interact with them. We are able to meet emotional needs. They are young kids after all, just 60 months old.”
When Eller interviewed prospective employees, she made sure they understood employment would require a willingness to perform assorted tasks in compliance with the standards of the North Carolina Division of Child Development. Most of all, she said, it required a very personal approach to meeting the needs of society’s most vulnerable – youngsters.
“I tell them (prospective employees), you give of yourself physically and emotionally. You must have empathy. You have to be a good listener,” Eller said. “Because we are university affiliated, they look for us to be an academic portal when in fact we strive to meet social, emotional, physical needs that help them learn.
“Here, they have learned how to wait, to share, to respect other people. We serve a diverse population here, kids with special needs such as kids with Down syndrome or cerebral palsy. They (children) don’t develop stereotypes. If one of them doesn’t want to follow the class outside, for instance, you’ll hear them say ‘Come on, we’re going over here, come on.’”
As the director of the center, she’s encountered parents who also needed some words of encouragement from her as an experienced parent and grandparent. Some were students enrolled at the university – single parents who lacked the family support they might have had in their hometowns. They had to schedule classes in a manner that allowed them to pick up their child before the center closed instead of relying on a family member to do so. Eller has encouraged many young adults who were balancing parenthood and a seesaw of emotions. In some cases, a boyfriend or girlfriend ended the courtship that once provided that parent with a sense of stability. In some cases, one parent died. In a worse case, a parent committed suicide and left the other parent wondering how they would maintain a suitable grade point average, care for a youngster and move through that grief cycle.
In many cases, she’s witnessed parents who were trying to balance the cost of childcare with every other expense in the family budget. She has been heartbroken to hear some parents say their only way to pay for child care was to rely upon credit cards – with fees that accumulate beside those associated with the cost of attending college. Over three decades, six years of which she served as an independent childcare administrator, Eller has learned some valuable lessons.
“I’ve learned child care has taken on a whole new role in our culture because of the cost of living, even when both parents work. Our society owes it to these families to support early childhood professionals,” Eller said.
As an administrator, she worked diligently to operate a center efficiently yet make it affordable for the clients. The long waiting list is indicative of the center’s relevance to the university community. She’s witnessed cases where public assistance was granted to undergraduates in need but none was available for graduate students. In cases where students need a master’s degree in order to land career positions, young parents can easily become discouraged by that lack of support, she said. Imagine the joy a single parent might feel, Eller explained, to have earned an undergraduate degree, perhaps the first person in the family to do so, then realize financial assistance for child care is unavailable while you study for that much-needed master’s degree.
Those are reasons Eller said she was humbled to learn upon her retirement that scholarships will one day be available to assist those in need. The Peggy Eller Endowment for the Child Development Center was recently formed, and is managed by the Appalachian State University Foundation Inc. A total of $25,000 is needed to fund the endowment. Funds shall be directed to the Child Development Center to be used at the discretion of its director in consultation with the vice chancellor for student development. Allocation of funds shall include, but is not limited to, scholarships for student employees and tuition assistance for children of Appalachian students and staff experiencing financial hardships.
Eller is a grandparent of five and looking forward to spending more time with her husband and her expanding family. She leaves her post joyful, yet tearful while recounting the kids who sheepishly entered into the center’s doors on their first day, then gleefully skipped away following their graduation ceremony. The center holds a ceremony for pupils who have completed their education there.
Eller was inspired daily by one central theme when she inspected the indoor and outdoor classrooms of the Child Development Center: “We are their (the youngsters) first experience. We are a team with parents.”
Appalachian State University, in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The transformational Appalachian experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and embrace diversity and difference. As one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina system, Appalachian enrolls about 18,000 students, has a low faculty-to-student ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.