Maddy Malis has held many positions at Federation Early Learning Services (FELS) over her 45-year career, but she is fondly remembered from her teacher days as the “chief splinter-taker-outer.”
Malis, who has been the president and CEO at FELS for 18 years, was honored May 25 for her decades-long career.
Her first job with FELS began as an internship at Paley Early Learning Center. She taught 4-year-olds, while also balancing two other internships.
“But I really loved my time at Paley,” she recalled. “I started out in Room 1, which will always be my room. I absolutely loved being in the classroom. I lived and breathed my kids and I never had any aspirations to leave the classroom.”
But then Norman Finkel, the CEO at the time, came along. He saw something in Malis. Finkel cultivated her administrative skills and after six years in the classroom, she was promoted to assistant preschool supervisor and appointed as director of the family day care program.
Malis grew the program from just 28 children to 100 over the course of three years.
She continued to move up, becoming the director of programs and services and then assistant executive director.
When the search for a new CEO came along, she held the interim position for two years, working with the FELS board and fundraising. In 1999, she was officially appointed as CEO.
“I don’t believe there’s been a day in my career here where I haven’t enjoyed the work that I do,” she said. “I’ve never been bored.”
She learned a lot from her mentor Finkel, who taught her about teamwork, the importance of participatory management and the significance of the FELS board.
Many board members and staff have been a part of FELS for 10 or 20 years.
“It speaks to the family that we create and also how many of us are mission-driven,” she said, “and really genuinely care about the work that we do with children and families.”
But Malis’ time as a teacher was certainly not forgotten. Several years ago, she received a call from a 20-year-old woman.
She was in Malis’ preschool class when she was 4.
“She called and said, ‘Hi, I don’t know if you remember me,’” Malis recalled. “‘I remember that this happened and I wanted to call and tell you one day when I was out in the playground and you brought me in the classroom, you closed the curtains. … I went down the slide and I got splinters in my behind, and you were so gentle and so sensitive and caring and you closed the curtains and you took all my splinters out.’”
She said the woman had this memory out of the blue and wanted to thank her.
“It touched my heart that for her it was something that was so scary and upsetting and how she felt I was so caring and sensitive,” she said.
Even before her 45-year career, Malis’ path to child care began much earlier.
At 12 years old, she opened her own day care in her parents’ garage during the summer, gathering about 10 4-year-olds from the block.
“I’d walk around the neighborhood and pick the kids up around 9 in the morning,” she remembered.
They started with the Pledge of Allegiance, then story time, Kool-Aid and cookies for snack, arts and crafts, and free play in the backyard.
Around 11:30 a.m., she’d deliver the kids back home.
“The neighborhood moms were thrilled that they had the mornings to themselves, and I did it Monday to Friday for the summer,” she said.
Since then, Malis has served on several city, state and regional advocacy organizations. In recent years, she testified at a state House Democratic Policy Committee hearing to educate legislators about the importance of preschool funding.
“I feel really proud of what FELS has done to contribute to helping shape public policy,” she said. “I grew up in a time when day care connoted custodial babysitting. We serve about 1,200 children a year. We have done a lot to help educate business leaders, the community and our parents about what does high-quality early childhood education look like and why is it important.”
She’s also proud of FELS’ commitment to serving children with special needs. When she was a teacher, about half of her students had serious emotional needs.
“I remember walking in and saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore. We need some serious support.’ And I was a valued teacher and people listened to the fact that we needed to address the needs of kids in a way that we had not before,” she said.
FELS now has a child development specialist who works with teachers to help integrate children with special needs successfully, as well as help parents navigate the early intervention system. That system addresses the needs of young children with disabilities or who experience developmental delays, something Malis said does not receive enough funding in Pennsylvania.
“[The state’s] definition of a child with special needs is not broad enough, and there are a lot of kids who fell through the cracks,” she said. “[But] that’s one of the safety nets that FELS offers — we’re here to catch those children.”
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