By KENDRA LEIGH MILLER
Special to the Times
NORTH KINGSTOWN—It’s been just over two decades since Joanne Sbrega first opened The Little Miracle Early Leaning preschool but after years of teaching and seeing more than 800 children come through the doors, her journey has officially ended.
The last field day and graduation at the pre-school, located at 860 Quidnessett Drive in North Kingstown, took place Friday morning with plenty of ice cream, huge blow-up bouncy toys and shared, fond memories.
The pre-school, like so many small businesses, is being forced to close out of financial necessity.
“It was one of the hardest decisions of my life,” Sbrega said.
Sbrega said the overhead, healthcare costs for her staff and cuts in state aid just did her in and at the end of the day, it just took its toll.
She remembered an easier time, 15 years ago, when they had a waiting list and parents learned of the pre-school by word of mouth.
“It’s been a bit of heaven for the past 22 years,” she said. “We had children from six weeks to six years, but more commonly children started at three months.”
Melissa Lowe, 23, was a student at the pre-school herself when she was four years old. She has pictures of when she was a girl in the same big activity room the latest group of graduates spent time in. Her two-year-old daughter Ruby will have the same great memories.
Lowe was teary-eyed as she spoke about her experiences years ago.
“It’s been incredible to be able to bring Ruby here,” she said. “When I heard they were closing, I started looking for another place and nothing I’ve looked at measures up.”
Lowe said Little Miracles was the best choice for her little girl.
“Her speed in sharing and interaction has been incredible,” Lowe said.
A child educator by training, Sbrega was encouraged to go out on her own and open her own childcare service. The building was just a shell. After doing the legwork with the help of her husband, town officials and the fire department to get the building up to code, the doors opened in August, 1989.
Shortly after she opened the school, Father Edward Marino from The Scallabrini Villa, a nursing home just across the way, collaborated with the school to provide an intergenerational program where once a week the children from the pre-school would visit the elderly and participate in various activities in the nursing home.
“Kids made great connections,” said Lowe.
She told the story of a young boy and one of the home’s residents, an elderly woman.
“She had the winter doldrums and didn’t want to go to the little hair salon inside the nursing home. He walked in to visit her one day and asked ‘What happened to YOU?’”
“Kids are so honest and it was so funny to hear him say that,” Lowe said. “Wouldn’t you know, she made the hair appointment and then couldn’t wait for the boy to come back the following week.”
“The closeness is really an extended family,” she added.
Because Sbrega was struggling with expenses, she along with parents and staff held a fundraiser so this year’s graduating class could have a real graduation just like all the children previous years have had.
“We wanted to give them the same send-off and it helps us grownups to close the door,” said Sbrega.
Sbrega has so many incredible memories that it’s hard to narrow it down. One thing that does stand out for her is how past students, all grown up now, have come back while they were in school to shadow her as part of an internship or community service.
“Once people heard I was closing through Facebook, so many wanted to come back to help me close,” she said,
All the same teachers that were at the pre-school when Lowe was young, like Sue Cleland and Nancy Morris, were still there for the final field day, jumping around with the children and their inflated toys and having just as much fun as the kids themselves.
“Melissa was a nice little girl, just like her daughter,” Cleland said of Lowe. “I’ve been here from day one and it’s been wonderful.”
Cleland said the parents have been incredible, which has made the experience even more pleasing. She recalled teaching a little boy named William, who she said often said the funniest things. She called them “Williamisms.”
“He came up to me one day and said ‘Oh, Ms. Sue, I have so much to do tomorrow! I have to get up, go to the dump, then take a nap, then get up AGAIN!’”
Morris, who has also been teaching at the pre-school since day one, took a breather for a few minutes Friday and watched the children play with the blown-up shapes from the side lines.
“There’s great camaraderie here,” she said. “It’s amazing how quickly the time has gone by.”
She said the thing she’s learned the most is how incredible a child’s capacity is to love.
“The love you receive from a child can’t be compared to anything else. It’s been quite a ride,” she said teary-eyed.
Alex Nitschke, 19, attended the pre-school when she was young and recently served as an intern there for her high school senior year.
“I remember my mom dropping me off and I learned to tie my shoes in one afternoon,” she said. “My mom was blown away. I loved it here.”
Nitschke said it was like a family and she was amazed at how nothing had changed since she’d been there all those years ago.
“It’s like closing a chapter of my life,” she said, “like closing my childhood.”
Sbrega shared some final thoughts in a letter she sent home to the parents.
“Whatever paths your children pursue, I know they’ll do well,” she said. “We have benefitted from the valuable contributions of approximately 50 staff members, countless volunteers and numerous student interns from universities, colleges and high schools.”