FELS CEO to Retire After Nearly 50 Years

Maddy Malis Courtesy of FELS

Maddy Malis is going to walk out of the Federation Early Learning Services office on Oct. 9 with her head held high, just as she’s done for nearly 50 years. The only difference will be that she’ll step onto Jamison Avenue as a retiree.

Malis, 68, joined FELS as a preschool teacher in 1971, predating the name “FELS” by decades (it was still Federation Day Care Services then). Moving from teaching to administration, and from administration to leadership, Malis became CEO of the sprawling day care network — which sprawled even more under her leadership — in 1999.

“I am grateful to the entire FELS community for such a long and rewarding career,” Malis wrote in a memo to staff, who were notified of Malis’ decision to retire about six months ago. “Our work has not only benefited the families we serve; our contributions have had a notable impact on the early education community in our region and throughout the Commonwealth. I feel so fortunate for having spent years — even decades — with such compassionate, dedicated professionals, many of whom I consider family.”

Malis was forthcoming about the strangeness of it all.

“I’m not old enough to be anywhere for 50 years,” she laughed.

Malis’ career is as decorated as it is lengthy. She’s won countless grants for FELS, and created departments within the organization that make it what it is today. She’s opened up new branches to serve new populations, and kept educational standards at an award-winning level.

Malis has overseen Child Care Information Services Northeast, a body that authorizes subsidized child care to thousands of residents of Northeast Philadelphia. She was co-chair of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Child Care Coalition, served as a board member and officer for the Pennsylvania Child Care Association and sat on United Way’s Early Childhood Education Advisory Committee. She’s a graduate of the Wexner Tri-State Jewish Leadership program, and she’s overseen the education of thousands of young children.

“It’s truly an accomplishment that she’s A) with an organization that long, and B) that it has grown to what it has become,” said Ron Perilstein, a longtime member of the FELS board and a past chairman. “She has made her mark and she will leave her mark on this community, and on the early childhood education community, not only in Philadelphia, but across the state.”

Pamela Thomas, who has been vice president and chief financial officer in her 12 years with FELS, calls Malis “the sidewalk doctor,” a reference to Malis’ propensity to let you know that you should get medical problems checked out. But more than that, she believes, Malis’ legacy is as a true leader of the people around her.

“She is more than just the CEO,” Thomas said. “She actually cares about everyone that works under her, with her, and always tries to bring everyone along to meet the goals of the organization.”

Malis grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, attending Gilbert Spruance Elementary School. Her father, Jerome Ralph, worked for a lumber company; now 96, he still works there.

Encouragement from “Mrs. Mandy,” Malis’ fourth-grade teacher, put her on the path to education as a vocation and, within a few years, Malis was running her own day camp, scooping up 10 toddlers from around the neighborhood for a few hours of story time, games, Kool-Aid and art projects.

Maddy Malis in her early teaching days Courtesy of Maddy Malis

After finishing a program at Temple University in child care, Malis began her career as a teacher at what is now the Paley Early Learning Center. Paley was a Jewish Federation project and, in the early 1970s, it was folded into Federation Day Care Services.

Soon after that merger, Malis’ talents for organization were noted by Norman Finkel, who was CEO then. Finkel encouraged her to join the administration and nurtured her career for as long as he was with FELS. Finkel’s ideas about what a work environment should be — “a tight family,” Malis said — were hugely influential on her as she worked her way through every management job that FELS had to offer.

She’s certainly needed that family in the last few months, as the COVID-19 pandemic made education a difficult prospect and gave it new political dimensions. Malis was proud that FELS committed to in-person education early on and, thus far, things have gone smoothly, more or less.

Her real-life family, perhaps more than anyone else, understands what she has gone through. Her son, Eric Malis, an attorney in Palo Alto, California, explained that it wasn’t only his mother’s desire to do the right thing every time that weighed on her; the consequences of those decisions stuck with her, long after they’d concluded. Watching his mother, Eric Malis said, he wasn’t aware until later in life that her dedication to her profession was something exceptional.

“She really put her whole self into trying to do what was right,” he said. That pressure, he believes, “helps build the person that she is: the person I’m so proud to call my mother.”


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