One sign of a devoted non-profit organization is a passion to expand rather than ration services.

Central Naples’ Fun Time Early Childhood Academy is expanding its high-quality, affordable and accredited programs off campus to Poinciana Elementary School and Golden Gate High School. The move is prompted by Fun Time’s headquarters
operating near capacity with 96 students ages 2 through VPK –most of them minorities and all of them poor.

The Poinciana program is set up for toddlers through age 4, while Golden Gate’s Teenage Parenting Program serves newborns
through voluntary pre-kindergarten (VPK) so mothers can stay in school.

Both sites also serve children of the schools’ employees. Lisa Morse, Collier County Public Schools senior director of Strategic Engagement and Initiatives, says: “We firmly believe that high-quality early learning plays a crucial role in preparing students for academic success. By also focusing on supporting CCPS employees, ensuring they can be fully engaged in schools
and provide optimal support to K-12 students, this partnership truly benefits children throughout the entire district.”

Fun Time has come a long way since starting as a nursery –a first in the minority community –in a yellow trailer in River Park in 1961. One of today’s teachers, Cester Williams, started there 39 years ago, and alumni now enroll their own kids and grandkids.

Today’s 8,000 square foot base of operations was built in 2009 next to the former Naples Daily News site on Central Avenue – now condominiums — and the Neighborhood Health Clinic.

The need is clear. Collier County has an estimated 15,000 children under age 5, statistics show, and only 1,000 of them attend pre-school.

“We’re more than just a childcare center,” Fun Time Executive Director Jessica Campbell says. “We are a beacon of hope and a
catalyst for change.

“Our vision is to create a world where every child can thrive, regardless of their circumstances.”

Fun Time’s plate is full. “We provide a wide array of services, from early identification of hearing, vision or dental concerns to wholesome meals, swim lessons, enriching art and theater experiences, and a robust STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) education,” she explains.

Students’ skills are tested and tracked for progress toward readiness for kindergarten. Campbell gives credit for success to small class sizes and good teachers who are paid well and get benefits.

Parents are enlisted as partners via events such as picnics and nutrition classes. Parents must be employed, and they pay an average of $60 per week for programs that cost five times as much to provide, consuming 83 percent of Fun Time’s annual budget of nearly $2.5 million. Helped by a four-star rating on Charity Navigator, Fun Time earns support from prestigious donors such as the Naples Winter Wine Festival, the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation, the Collier Community Foundation and Christ Child of Naples. Other support comes from community pillars such as Arthrex, Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples (CMON), United Way, Books for Collier Kids, Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida, United Arts Collier and Future Ready Collier, a community vision project affirming affordable, quality early childhood programs are a pressing civic need.

Jonathan Forester, CMON’s CEO, values the collaboration. “We partner with Fun Time to bring some of our play-based
kindergarten readiness programs to their students to help supplement their strong curriculum,” he says. “It’s a partnership we really cherish.”

“What continues to inspire me is the joy I see in the faces of the children and staff whenever I am at any of the three locations,” says Fun Time Chairman Kris Pfaehler. “I am also inspired by the peace and comfort felt by the parents who know that their children are being provided with the highest quality education and care during a full-day, 50-week-per-year schedule, while they are working to support their families.”

It’s a quality of life issue, he says, that exerts a ripple effect: “Employers know that when their employees have safe, quality childcare, they have more satisfied employees with less stress about their children.”

Pfaehler offers kudos to Campbell, whose prior Collier County Public Schools positions included teacher, principal, virtual school founder and reading/math coach. “Her passion to serve low income families in Naples continues to be an inspiration for me and so many others,” he says.

Campbell is motivated by her own background – being born and raised in poverty. Alongside two diplomas from Florida Gulf
Coast University, she displays an Abraham Lincoln tribute titled “Persistence” on an office wall.

“I want awareness,” she says. “People don’t know there are working families that can hardly get by. They need access to
affordable early childhood programs.”

Next up: A Fun Time master plan, for more access — and sustainability.

For information on volunteering and donating, contact Fun Time at 261-8284 or moreinfo@funtime.org.

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