Nonprofit director ‘in awe’ of the way young children see the world
Susan Niemi is executive director of Growing Minds Early Education Programs, a nonprofit in North County providing educational programming and resources for preschool-aged children and their families, at locations in Escondido and Oceanside.
Working with young children and their families has been a calling Susan Niemi has been following for more than 35 years, from earning a degree in child psychology, working as a school counselor and elementary school teacher, to her work as a social worker, a girls’ athletics instructor, or creating a support group for young children of divorced parents.
“If you have ever spent a great deal of time having the privilege to converse, on a daily basis, with 2-, 3- and 4-year-old children, they are the most enjoyable conversations of all. I learn far more from children than they learn from me,” she says. “They are happy, full of life, curious, amazed, unique, and brilliant, and they are great teachers to adults. Spend more time talking and listening to what young children have to say and how they see the world, and you will be in awe.”
As executive director of Growing Minds Early Education Programs, she gets to do this every day. The nonprofit operates licensed child development centers in Escondido and Oceanside, serving children between 6 weeks to 5 years old. For more than 50 years, when it was known as North County Community Services and also operated a food bank and re-entry services for people who had previously been incarcerated, Growing Minds has partnered with local schools and colleges, community health clinics, businesses, and other nonprofits to provide services and resources that include childcare, education, and meals for kids.
Niemi, 59, lives in Encinitas with her daughter and has been with Growing Minds for three years. She took some time to talk about the organization and her passion for working with children.
Q: Why did you want to work with Growing Minds?
A: My work experience in the field of business administration, coupled with my work experience and passion for working with children and families for over 35 years, I knew that this would be an excellent opportunity for me. As a parent and educator, I understand firsthand the value of providing a child with love, care, nurturing and making he or she feel seen, heard, respected, valued and loved. A child needs a “rock” in his or her life; one person to make them feel that they matter. It can be a parent, a teacher, a coach, a friend, a mentor, etc. When given the opportunity to be able to make a difference in the life of a child, I considered this more than an opportunity — it was a gift and a calling for me. I am beyond grateful and do not take this calling of mine for granted.
Q: What is it about working in this capacity — providing educational programming for children and their families — that appeals to you, personally?
A: As a single, working mother, I understand the value of early education and quality childcare for working parents. Without early childcare services, I would not have had a safe environment for my child while I was at work. The services that we provide are so near and dear to my heart both personally and professionally because I know the critical importance and need of early childcare and early education programs. In addition, the years prior to preschool, which are services that we also provide at Growing Minds, are the most important years of a child’s life in terms of brain development. The first five years are the most critical in the development of a child’s brain. During these years, children begin to develop cognitive, social, emotional, and language skills and start to relate and interact with the world. Research shows that children who attend quality preschool may have higher math and reading skills, are better prepared for kindergarten, behave better in class, and are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college. In addition to strengthening socialization skills — how to compromise, be respectful of others, and solve problems — preschool provides a place where your child can gain a sense of self, explore, play with peers, and build confidence. At preschool, children build a strong foundation in social, pre-academic, and general life skills that will give them a leg up in school and beyond. Research shows that children who graduate from preschool have improved academic readiness, lower incarceration rates, and higher earnings.
Q: Part of what Growing Minds is helping young children with include developing a positive self-image, socialization, and learning in math, science, language, and the arts. Can you talk about what the activities look like that help children at Growing Minds develop a positive self-image?
A: Albert Einstein said that “play is the highest form of research.” We provide a play-based curriculum, which allows children to learn without having to go through pressure. This kind of learning environment allows children to explore more and retain more information.
What I love about Encinitas...
I love the sound of the waves crashing on the beach and the beautiful sunsets overlooking the ocean.
Q: Your website says that there are key skills and learning that can happen occur when kids are “provided with the kinds of interactions, instruction, and environments shown by research to promote learning and development.” What are the specific steps this research has outlined that you’re currently using at Growing Minds?
A: We also provide outside classrooms. Both the indoor and outdoor environments offer diverse and unique variety for our children to learn and grow. While all children benefit from preschool, lower income and disadvantaged children often make the most gains. Researchers who study pre-kindergarten education often find that children who have had early experiences of economic scarcity and insecurity gain more from our programs at Growing Minds than their more advantaged peers. Early childhood education improves social skills, is linked to greater success in life, gives parents freedom to study and work, and offers screenings for health and behavioral issues.
Q: What’s been challenging about your work?
A: One of our biggest challenges is trying to hire teachers. We need to hire more teachers and there has been a teaching shortage across the entire country. I am hoping that if any individual reading this article is interested in employment in the field of early education, to please reach out to us on our website, or call us.
Q: What’s been rewarding about this work?
A: This work is so rewarding to me on so many levels. We offer them positive praise and teach them how to be kind and compassionate toward each other. According to Pablo Casals, “A child must know that he or she is a miracle, that since the beginning of the world there hasn’t been, and until the end of the world there will not be another child like he or she.” Children love knowing that they are appreciated by the people around them. Praise them and let them know that they are a blessing to this world. Each one is unique and they will leave their own marks in this world. This is the culture that I cultivate at Growing Minds. Each one of our children is unique, special, respected, honored, seen, valued, and heard. And this is how we treat our staff members, too.
Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?
A: Working with children at this very young and impressionable age is a calling; I do not consider it a job. It takes a very special population of individuals to work with our population of young lives and hearts who are being shaped and conditioned at such a formative time in their lives. Our children and families are our gifts and our treasures, and we make sure that they know that and feel that way.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: To never give up.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I swam the La Jolla Cove!
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: Sitting on a beach chair under an umbrella, overlooking the ocean with a wonderful book, followed by grilling outside with family and friends, and finishing off the evening by a campfire, roasting s’mores with chocolate infused marshmallows.
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