A short time after Cathy Estes arrived at the Early Education Center, she re-discovered the importance of early intervention for children with developmental delays.
And since then, she has dedicated the last decade of her professional life to helping families by leading the EEC, which Sunflower Diversified Services owns and operates.
Estes had been a certified associate behavior analyst in Oklahoma before arriving at the EEC, located at 1312 Patton Road in Great Bend. She has a master’s degree in human relations/counseling.
“I had worked with teens and adults but knew early intervention is crucial for children needing assistance,” Estes said. “Since 85 percent of brain development occurs during the first three years of life, it is easier to help youngsters overcome delays than it is to re-wire their brains later.”
Estes is looking back on her early days and experiencing bittersweet moments. She will retire this summer.
She and her husband, Frank, have raised a son and daughter, and have two grandsons. The Larned couple plan to pursue their artistic hobbies by moving to an art community in the South. She also is a painter.
“I’m looking forward to our new life but I will really miss making a difference in children’s lives,” Estes commented. “Indirectly, through the work of our staff and the freedom to be creative, I have helped make a difference in hundreds of young lives.
“I am ultimately responsible to 13 staff members and about 120 families at any given time,” she said. “It will be strange to no longer have these responsibilities.”
However, Estes quickly noted, she is leaving families in the capable hands of an exceptional staff. Each person is credentialed and skilled at supporting children and their families, she explained.
One particular legacy Estes is leaving to her colleagues is stressing the importance of children’s social and emotional well-being. She and several other staff members have pursued their education in this field through the Kansas Association of Infant Mental Health.
“We know the term ‘infant mental health’ is foreign to the layman, but positive relationships with peers and adults are vital to overall development,” she said. “We can detect early signs of social/emotional concerns even with infants.
“It is crucial for youngsters to get support as early as possible,” she added. “Social/emotional stability is the foundation for all other learning.”
Estes had always known EEC programs were making huge differences in families’ lives but wondered if it was enough. Since the EEC enrolls children only up to age 3, she was concerned about the next few years in a child’s life. And an idea was born.
That idea today is called Sunflower’s Incredible Years Preschool, which has been serving families for more than seven years.
“It broke my heart to realize that once our little ones aged out of our programs, we could no longer help them,” she recalled. “They might not have had an alternative place to go until age 5, especially if they lacked social/emotional skills.
“We didn’t want them to backslide; they needed to keep moving forward with kindergarten preparation,” she added. “Now Incredible Years offers to the community another affordable preschool where our staff and high-quality curriculum continue providing top-notch programs.”
Incredible Years’ tuition is income-based; it serves children of all abilities.
“The preschool and other programs are the result of me being a big-picture person,” Estes commented. “I can look to our staff and see each individual’s strengths. Then we pull these strengths together.
“Because of this, no one is overwhelmed,” she added. “One person cannot be all things to all people. The staff fills in the pieces of my big picture to make the puzzle fit. Our team approach has been extremely successful and I know our team will continue this important work.”