Polly Peace has a magical connection with children. They are drawn to her warm, gentle, playful presence and give her the full measure of their attention and affection.
As executive director of the Westchester County-based Country Childrens Center for the past 30 years, Peace believes she was born to do her job of guiding the daily care of some 500 youngsters, ranging from infancy to school age.
“Having had a wonderful childhood myself, my motivation each day is to try to give our children as many opportunities as possible for the same freedom to play, imagine, pretend and learn in an unstressed and natural environment like the one I enjoyed growing up,” she says.
“It is a big responsibility, but I just love it. Every single day is a pleasure and I know I am a lucky woman to be doing this as my life’s work.”
The Country Childrens Center is marking its 50th anniversary this year. It has grown and flourished from a modest start in Katonah’s Fellowship Hall to include five different sites.
Peace grew up in the New England town of Southboro, Massachusetts.
“My father, a builder, purchased part of the magnificent, old Kidder Estate when it was sold off. He renovated a house for our family, which included me and my three sisters, and we grew up surrounded by its incredibly beautiful grounds, which we were free to roam.”
Peace had her first experience with childcare when her parents had a “surprise” baby, Lisa, when she was 13. “I just loved the fun of having a baby sister and showing her the beauty all around us,” she said. “Caring for Lisa when I got home from school and studying nature with her was what led to my interest in teaching children.”
Peace went on to study history and education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and started teaching high school students.
“I then met Frederic (Ric), my husband, when we were in our early 20s. He enlisted in the Army during the Vietnam War, which, fortunately, was winding down. After months of separation, we got married while he was still in the Army and (he) finished his tour of duty in Hawaii.”
After Hawaii, it was on to Syracuse where Ric got a degree in architecture and the couple had two children, Kristin and Deric. Syracuse was home for nine years, followed by Vermont, where Ric worked as an architect. When Ric got an offer from IBM in Tarrytown, the couple decided he should take it and they moved to Somers, where they live today.
“Somers is so gorgeous. It reminded me of where I grew up,” Peace says. “Our house was originally a one-room Somers schoolhouse, which we expanded. I was back to teaching, this time at a nursery school in Ossining. I also taught Sunday School at St. Luke’s Church in Katonah.” It was St. Luke’s that led to Peace’s current role at the Country Childrens Center.
“Somewhat miraculously, a board member asked me if I wanted to be the executive director of the Country Childrens Center, then a small, church-based program.” Peace was called in for an interview and got the job in 1987.
LIKE AN ARROW
“My happy childhood, my little sister, my love of nature and children — everything was like an arrow pointing me in this direction,” she says.
When Peace took the helm at the Country Childrens Center (CCC), she realized the time had come to move forward from church basements. More and more women were entering the workforce and there was an ever-growing need for excellent childcare.
“We wanted to find our own home for the program but needed funding,” she says. “Fortunately, an IBM parent told us about a special IBM fund that had been created, and they eventually put up the funding for our first dedicated site in Katonah. PepsiCo also put funds into the effort.”
CCC bought the property, a single-family brick home with a barn on four acres of a mostly wooded area on Route 35 in Katonah, and the model of childcare Peace envisioned was born. The center called The Farm opened in 1991.
“Once The Farm was a reality we saw what a home-like environment could provide for the children under our care. Inside, we kept the home’s architectural details intact as much as possible. Outside we created gardens and hiking trails and added ducks to a pond on the property. The barn was renovated and is used for science and nature exhibits and other activities and events.”
The Farm served as a model for all that was to come over the next two decades.
“At this point in time, corporations wanted to invest in quality childcare services,” Peace says. “They recognized that excellent childcare leads to a more productive workforce.”
Next, IBM took the lead in helping CCC open the White House site, also on Route 35 in Katonah, in 1997. Once again, it was a single-family house, this time with a swimming pool.
The Bedford Hills site followed on the success of The Farm and the White House and opened in 1999. CCC began providing before- and after-school childcare and now has programs in the Katonah-Lewisboro, Bedford Central and Yorktown school districts.
But more was still ahead in completing Peace’s vision.
“The IBM Corporation decided it wanted its own, on-site childcare,” Peace says. “Because of our history with them, they were well-acquainted with the quality of our programs and believed the single-family home model would work for them.”
As a result, IBM established its first on-site childcare facility for employees and chose CCC to operate a center in a spacious, beautifully renovated house on the grounds of the T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights.
The center was opened in 2001 and had a large waiting list right from the start. To this day, Baby Blue is the only IBM on-site childcare center in the U.S.
But unmet demand at IBM was still strong, so CCC looked for another site close to Watson and found a home on spacious grounds on Route 134. Known as The Barns at Kitchawan, the center opened in 2009. One third of the children are from IBM. The center has a separate dedicated building just for infants and toddlers.
Looking back over her 30 successful years at CCC and the love and affection the children display toward her, Peace says, “They do seem to like me, and I think it’s because I love them. Children will accept you if you show them love and respect. And I do enjoy having fun, like dressing up in a full bunny suit as the Easter Bunny each year or putting on a plaid flannel granny gown and reading ‘The Polar Express’ to groups of children at our annual holiday celebration.”
A focus on diversity is also high on Peace’s list on a daily basis, with children also marking special days like Chinese New Year, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and Cinco De Mayo. CCC also runs an inclusion nursery school program for children with special needs.
Peace says the children she tends at the Country Childrens Center deserve the best care she and her staff can provide.
“It is often said that children are our future. However, they are also our present. We need to think about this every day as we make plans for them. I love being with the children. They give me hope and joy and a glimpse into that wonderful world called childhood that we have all experienced, where everything is a possibility and we have the freedom to imagine what we will.”