St. Mary's Center opens new Carolyn Lynch Children's Center
DORCHESTER -- Hanging on the wall in the Carolyn Lynch Children's Center is a sign in shape of a compass rose. For Maura Letourneau, it represents the namesake and mission of St. Mary's Center for Women and Children.
"A compass rose is a tool to help guide you to a destination. I wanted to let the families who live here know that this is not their final destination, that they're on their way. This is merely a stop along the way," Letourneau said as she spoke at the March 13 ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the new state-of-the-art early education center.
Letourneau is the executive director of Children's Express Child Care, Inc., which has partnered with St. Mary's Center, a multi-service organization that helps women and families break the cycle of generational poverty. The Carolyn Lynch Children's Center will provide a safe educational space, and Children's Express is providing teachers, for the infants and toddlers living with their mothers in St. Mary's shelter program.
A $1 million grant from the Lynch Foundation enabled St. Mary's Center to renovate 9,560 square feet of space on their aging Dorchester campus to open eight classrooms on two floors. These will accommodate 100 children from eight weeks old through preschool.
Leaders, friends, and partners of St. Mary's Center, the Lynch Foundation, and Children's Express attended the speaking program and ribbon-cutting in the new facilities. Among them were Katie Everett, executive director of the Lynch Foundation; Peter Lynch, accompanied by his daughters Annie, Elizabeth, and Mary; Boston City Councilor At-Large Erin Murphy; and Boston City Councilor Frank Baker.
Alexis Steel, the president of St. Mary's Center, offered welcoming remarks.
She spoke about the risks and results of poverty and homelessness, particularly for women and children, who make up 70 percent of those in poverty. The high cost of childcare can prevent single mothers from being able to work or force them to spend much of their income on childcare. Children experiencing homelessness are also at a greater risk of experiencing developmental delays.
The need for affordable and accessible childcare became even more apparent during the coronavirus pandemic. Steel said that most of those who suffered from job loss during that time were women, most of whom were unable to return to work due to childcare. Almost 90 percent of the mothers staying at St. Mary's Center lost their jobs or schooling during that time.
Remarkably, Steel said, when they proposed the idea of a children's center, they completed the project in six months and were licensed in eight months.
"You've done this under the most stressful of times for contractors, families, communities like ours. We are so incredibly thankful for making this center happen," Steel said.
She also spoke about Carolyn Lynch, who was herself the daughter of a teacher and administrator.
"Carolyn was a tireless advocate for children, particularly those most vulnerable. Her work across the city of Boston is incomparable, and the amount of families that she has impacted is unmatched. Today, it is a privilege to honor Carolyn's legacy naming this state-of-the-art early education center for children the Carolyn Lynch Children's Center," Steel said.
In her remarks at the ceremony, Letourneau called the new center "a gift and a blessing to the families who live here."
"What caught my attention last year, when first discussing this project, was that both the Lynch Foundation and St. Mary's understood the positive effects a high-quality, early childhood environment can have on a young person's life and their family," she said.
Among these, she said, are buffering the effects of trauma and strengthening social and emotional skills.
Another important benefit of the children's center is that it will give parents a safe and nurturing place for their children to stay while they work on their educational and employment goals, so they can achieve stability and advance in their careers after leaving the shelter.
"Our goal is not just to find them a home, but to end that poverty that they're going through," said Kayombo Kamawu, who started working as St. Mary's chief program operations manager six months ago.
"To see such collaboration in human services is unheard of, and to see it being done with such open arms and such an open heart is unbelievable and incredible," he said.
Renee Da Silva, St. Mary's Center's clinical coordinator, spoke about the benefits of having the clinical team so close to the classrooms and living space for the shelter residents. Unlike most other shelters, she noted, they enjoy "the very tangible ability that we have to bring what's happening in the classroom into our living spaces." This allows them to use common language and visuals.
Da Silva said that clinicians must often "navigate barriers" with phone calls, emails, and the time it takes to observe children in an environment and deliver results to their parents.
"But we have ability, right now, to walk right downstairs, to do the warm handoff ourselves," she said.
After the speaking program, Peter Lynch cut the ribbon, and the St. Mary's Center staff gave tours of the new facilities.
More information about St. Mary's Center for Women and Children is available on their website, stmaryscenterma.org.