Happy Workers still going strong

Happy Workers Learning Center

BY JON WILSON, Columnist

Opened to take care of working families’ youngsters in 1929, Happy Workers day care center is credited with being Pinellas County’s oldest social service agency. It has served several generations of residents, and continues to operate today.

Rev. Oscar Lee McAdams and his wife Willie Lee opened the nursery in 1929 as an offshoot of Trinity Presbyterian Church. Twenty-Second Street South was a growing community, but it still was a neighborhood out in the country, set among palmetto and pines.

Mrs. McAdams, who was the prime mover behind the establishment, decided such a place was needed after she saw toddlers running unsupervised in the street while their parents worked.

She said the school’s purpose would be to “safeguard the health of the pre-school age child, as well as promote his physical, social and emotional development. “The school is operated mainly as a convenience for working Negro mothers,” she told the St. Petersburg Times. “But a large number of parents send their children to the school to acquaint them with supervised music and religious programs which prepare them for public school life.”

Five children made up Happy Workers’ first “class.” Their parents paid 25 cents a week.

By 1943, the center was offering infant care at $2 per day. If parents couldn’t afford the whole fee, they paid what they could.

Lena Anderson was the supervisor in 1948. A newspaper article written for the Evening Independent by Eva Jordan, the wife of Elder Jordan Jr., described Anderson as working “against a background of cribs, high chairs, playpens, sterilizers, and such paraphernalia required to prepare formulas.”

Despite being in charge of two dozen children from infants to two year olds, Anderson maintained a calm and cool demeanor, “and only her frank admission made you believe she was 67 years old,” Jordan wrote.

In 1945, Anderson had been named the Red Cross nurse’s aide of the month – the third time she had received the honor. She was the first African-American woman to be so honored and the only aide, black or white, to win the recognition three months in a row.

By 1954, the daycare center had a staff of 14, which included college-trained nurses, skilled kitchen workers and licensed practical nurses. It had an enrollment of 205 youngsters, said Hazel Davis, an instructor at the nursery who also acted as its publicity chairman.

Fees ranged then from $2.75 to $3.75. Facilities included toilets that children could operate without adults present, and toy chests and shelves within the reach of small children. The nursery’s philosophy was to instill independence in children by giving them safe, small tasks they could do themselves.

An extensive and constantly used playground taught the children “to respect the rights of others. We feel this is a definite accomplishment in social development,” Mrs. McAdams said.

The school’s over-arching idea was that its children would learn to be peacemakers, experience love, and come to appreciate the diversity of the world community.

A 1954 newspaper article praised the school for its tradition of producing well-behaved and productive pupils.

Graduates of Happy Workers include names such as Oscar nominated actress Angela Bassett, Don McRae, the city’s first African-American city manager and Reverend Wayne Thompson, who began his calling into the ministry as the preacher in the Tom Thumb Wedding. The Tom Thumb wedding was Happy Worker’s premier fundraising event.

In 2011, under the leadership of then board President Angela Parrish, the legal name was changed to Happy Worker’s Learning Center Inc. It is sponsored by the Friends of Happy Workers, a nonprofit volunteer organization.  The school today has more than 170 and will be celebrating its 85th anniversary this August.

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