Moss Point — Gwen Kennard was a marketing teacher at Moss Point High School when she needed to place her baby daughter in a daycare facility.
Unsatisfied with the available choices, and despite being a single mother with limited financial resources, Kennard opened Little People Learning Center “to make sure Crystal was getting the proper learning tools,” she said.
D.J. Dett, whose son was one of Kennard’s first clients, recalled Kennard “had a dream of not only opening a childcare center, but one that gave the children opportunities to do the things parents could not because of time, finances, resources or just plain knowledge.”
Soon after Kennard opened Little People Learning Center in 1982, it “grew like gossip … fast and fierce,” said Dett.
“My son was her first valedictorian,” she said. “He was classified as gifted after entering the public school system. He could read fluently at age five. I contribute a lot of his success to his beginnings at Little People.”
Today, Little People is the largest privately-owned childcare center in Jackson County, serving 98 children ages 12 months to 14 years.
“It was a leap of faith to get started, but it’s been very, very beneficial for me,” said Kennard, owner and director of the Moss Point-based business. “I love it. This is my life.”
Over the years, Kennard has expanded the childcare center to 6,000 square feet, including the addition of a second computer lab, bringing the total of computer stations to 30. Children as young as 12 months are introduced to computer workshop games on track with those offered to first graders in the school district. At 18 months, they are introduced to Bailey’s Book House Program, a computer program patterned after the popular Blue’s Clues learning series.
“You’d be surprised at what they learn,” said Kennard. “During the four years they’re here, we go through the basic phonics, readiness, social skills and motor skills. When they leave here, some of my children can enter the first grade early.”
Even though Little People is open to all, Kennard focuses on helping children from lower-income, underprivileged families, “some from poverty-stricken backgrounds with little hope for the future,” said Dett.
The state subsidizes fees for approximately one-third of Little People’s students. “The district program has gotten real strict,” she said. “Parents have to work 15 hours and go to school. We work very closely with the district and the families.”
Kennard also rents five area houses to low-income families, and is planning to build or buy a community center nearby.
“Everything Gwen touches turns to gold,” said Dett. “If she was involved in a yard sale, hundreds of dollars were made on Saturday morning. If her kids performed at a local community program, they were always praised and invited back. When she decided to go into real estate, local banks were competing to help her. But one of the most profound things is that she always gives back. She has a generous heart, which I find lacking in many successful men and women. Each year, she gives her customers a free weekend. She prepares a dinner for them on Friday to take home and keeps their kids overnight for free. The kids attend a Friday night movie and Saturday morning breakfast at McDonald’s. That’s rare.”
Little People offers performing arts, theater and gymnastics classes onsite, special tutoring and a program for handicap students. About the only change Kennard has made to her business in the last few years involved replacing carpet with ceramic floors, “to make it easier to keep the floors clean and therefore healthier for our little ones,” she said.
Kennard has long been involved with the Mississippi Education Childcare Association, Southern Early Childhood Association, the National Association for Female Executives and National Federation of Independent Business. A board member for Boys & Girls Club of America, she has volunteered as a Youth Reader tutor and a career fair advisor to local high schools since 1985. She has been a member of the local chamber of commerce since 2000. She was recently selected to the National Register’s Who’s Who in Executives & Professionals for the 2005-06 publication.
“The secret of Little People’s success is that we’re all dedicated to the world’s greatest assets, its children,” said Kennard.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.