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TLC recognized after 31 years

Mirror photo by Walt Frank / Carlynn Davis prepares to go down a slide at the playground at Tender Love for Children on Sept. 17.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series on businesses that will be inducted into the Blair County Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame on Oct. 21 at the Blair County Convention Center.

Barbara Crago has been part of Tender Love for Children of the First Evangelical Lutheran Church since its beginning.

TLC opened its doors to 100 children on Sept. 6, 1988, with Crago as its director. She remains director of the program, which today serves more than 200 families.

Tender Love for Children will be one of four businesses inducted into the Blair County Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame on Oct. 21 at the Blair County Convention Center.

“It is quite an honor to be recognized. After over 30 years of running the business, to be recognized by Altoona professionals is quite an honor,” Crago said. “I have been blessed with good health and a love to teach and working in a beautiful facility — what could beat that?”

TLC was founded through the efforts of Rev. Roy A. Steward Jr. and members of the church council.

“They could see a mission for caring for children. Our mission was also to help parents. It was the generation then that both family members had to work,” Crago said.

Crago said she knew this was a good idea.

“There was a need for it — preschool was becoming more popular. People saw the need to make kids more comfortable entering public school. Parents wanted their kids to be more confident and comfortable when entering school. We had an awesome curriculum that was good to the children,” Crago said. “It was like Field of Dreams — you open the doors and they will come if you offer a good program that cares for children.”

Crago, a member of the church congregation, was a good fit for the program — she had taught first grade at Irving Elementary School and afterward taught a preschool program for the Blair County Recreation Commission.

The TLC program grew quickly, initially occupying just two rooms of the educational building but soon expanding to the spacious social hall and steadily opening more and more rooms of the building to accommodate rapidly rising numbers.

TLC was a pioneer in offering all-day day care in a licensed facility, Crago said.

“We didn’t bunch the kids together, we separated them by age,” Crago said.

The field of early childhood education was still newly emerging, but Crago applied her teaching experience to create a learning-rich environment by developing an organized curriculum for each age group. The kids did not simply play all day, they learned a myriad of subjects through guided play, structured educational activities, music and movement.

It was virtually unheard of for children in playschools or daycares to receive that type of education.

It has not always been smooth sailing for TLC — a fire on Sept. 11, 1997, nearly destroyed the church and the educational building.

TLC found itself without a home. Within two days, an alternate location was secured to ensure that TLC could continue to provide care for children and families. TLC operated out of Fourth Lutheran Church on Howard Avenue while repairs and renovations were made. The program was able to move back into the educational building in 1998.

In 2002, TLC became one of the first early childhood programs in the state to participate in Keystone STARS, a program designed to continuously improve childcare programs statewide by investing in their success.

“Our goal is to provide quality care and education. We are a 4 STAR center, the highest you can reach,” Crago said. “It helped attract more people. It became very advantageous to know you had earned that status. It takes a lot of work and time to keep it.”

In 2004, TLC secured a neighboring vacant mall from the city of Altoona and built a multi-level playground.

“We did many fund raisers. It was important for the children to have fresh air and outside play. Church and congregation support brought about the playpark for children,” Crago said. “Fresh air is a key component for healthy children, it was something that needed to be done.”

Crago said Rev. Barry R. Folmar, who has been at the church for about five years, has been a big supporter of the program.

“He reaches out to the families and children. He gives mini sermons to the children on a weekly basis. He talks about things like friendships and how to get along during the day. He is very kind-hearted and gracious, an excellent pastor,” Crago said.

“TLC provides so many good gifts to our children. TLC is the most important thing we can do, provide love for our children. It really teaches God’s love. The kids learn so much about caring for each other,” Folmar said. “I didn’t expect to find this when I came here. It has opened up a wonderful way to interact with children. It is a blessing for me, it is wonderful school. Mrs Crago is at the center, she is the person behind this.”

Crago said she is not surprised by the growth and success of the program.

“I am not surprised because we do our job, we care and educate. We work hard to make sure it works each day. I get great joy knowing I am sending kids to school, to make sure kids are smart and prepared,” Crago said. “A good beginning means a good path to being a success.”

Crago is optimistic about the future of TLC.

“I see it to be sustaining, its reputation is good. I believe it will continue because the groundwork has been put down,” Crago said. “As long as I am healthy I will teach. It is important to me to be with children and prepare them — I love that. The art of teaching is a craft and I love that. It means everything in the world to me.”

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.

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