There’s not many places Joan Breen goes in Richmond that she doesn’t get recognized.
But that’s just what happens when you’ve spent 27 years as the manager of the Good Shepherd Drop-In Centre for preschoolers in Steveston — which celebrates three decades of operation in 2018 — and have touched the lives of seemingly countless families.
“I was at the grocery store and the young fella bagging the groceries said to me, ‘You’re Joan from Good Shepherd?’” Breen said. “He told me he went there as a youngster.”
Another time, when Breen was off on vacation and had just boarded her plane at YVR and felt she’d made it without running into anyone she knew, a voice called out, “Joan, is that you?”
“It was the flight attendant — a mom of one the kids who had been at the centre,” Breen said with a smile.
And now she is getting plenty of cross-generational interaction these days as young parents who were some of the “little people” Breen and her staff looked after for a few hours each day are now bringing their own children back to her.
“I’ve also been to a couple of weddings. Some of the kids I had have married young,” she said.
But don’t think Breen doesn’t like the contact or recognition. She said her time at the daycare has brought her immense pride and happiness.
“I call it a community service, not a program because it’s open to everyone,” she said. “I don’t like to refer to it as a business.”
To help make things run, the Emmanuel Christian Community Church — where the daycare operates in an adjacent building — provides some funding.
The odd art camps and garage sales at the church also contribute to keeping the doors open.
“It clicks over,” Breen said.
When she started at the centre, after coming to Canada from Ireland in 1989 with her then husband who was studying at Regent College, a graduate school of theology in Vancouver, Breen thought it would be for a couple of years.
“A friend saw the ad for the position, so I went down and they chose me,” Breen said, adding that when her marriage ended not long afterwards, she never thought about leaving.
“My husband went back to Ireland and I stayed here,” she said. “That was OK because we all have our calling in life. And mine is here. Plus, I never felt any pull to go back to Ireland and my three kids were happy here.”
So, too, were plenty of youngsters in her care.
“It’s been the perfect place. And I’ll keep on as long as I can,” said Breen, 63, adding she’s seen many changes in the community during her time as the flow of families using the centre’s “pay-as-you-go” structure has been steady.
“When I started we had moms who weren’t working and our service gave them a couple of hours for them to do things on their own, their errands or whatever they need to get done,” Breen said.
“We found that the parents really needed those hours. There are moms home on maternity leave and they also have a toddler. Well, we can take the toddler and give the mom some time,” she said.
“It’s difficult for young families. If you can’t get all-day, daycare, or can’t afford it, we can help because it’s a drop-in centre where families pay for the time they place their children with us.”
One major difference today is a high number of grandparents who bring the youngsters to the centre.
“They get the couple of hours break,” Breen said.
Licensed to care for those from 18 months to five years old, the centre’s variety of ages makes for a rich environment, Breen said.
“Developmentally, it’s good for them to be with their peers, their own ‘little people.’”
And it’s also endearing to be part of their community, Breen added.
“It’s very fulfilling. I’ve met so many wonderful people over the years,” she said. “And the community here at the church has been a great support.”
That was evident when she came through cancer surgery in 2010 and was away from the centre for a while, but made a much anticipated return, according to one of the youngsters.
“One of the little guys asked me, ‘Why did you come back Joan?’ So, I asked him why he asked that, and he told me, ‘You came back because I wanted you to come back.’
“He was so happy for me to return and that shows you how their little minds develop and work,” Breen said.