Longtime Children’s Center director makes her move

Mully Mullally, center, sings with her granddaughter Vida and musician David Hoffman at her recent farewell celebration. - Brian Kelly
Mully Mullally, center, sings with her granddaughter Vida and musician David Hoffman at her recent farewell celebration.
— image credit: Brian Kelly

It may not seem like such a major move, but it is.

After 25 years, Mully Mullally is stepping away from her position as director of the South Whidbey Children’s Center. It’s a big move for Mullally, someone so synonymous with childcare that she’s been called the Mother Theresa for South End kids.

Mullally leaves amid high praise indeed.

Her imprint on South Whidbey was underscored two weekends ago when the community came together to celebrate her work for the South Whidbey Children’s Center. On a day when the South End was struggling with a windstorm that had knocked power out for thousands across Whidbey, Mullally’s large family of friends gathered candles, generators and extension cords and lit up Bayview Hall for the celebration.

“Her generosity toward others and her advocacy for her children and families is unsurpassed,” said Sarah Hess, chairwoman of the board of directors for the South Whidbey Children’s Center.

Those are big shoes that Mullally is leaving empty, Hess added.

“I call them unfillable. As the founder, really, of the Children’s Center she’s really irreplaceable. She set the initial vision and the initial curriculum and hired the initial staff.”

Mullally’s legacy is reflected in the center itself, one of just 10 percent of such child care facilities are accredited by the National Association of the Education of Young Children.

“It’s not what I call dumpy day care. It’s not just child care, it’s so much more,” Hess said. “It’s about the family as a whole, parenting, the children’s interaction with the parents.”

“The Children’s Center is a lot more than just day care. She kind of set the tone for all that,” Hess added.

Kristi Saunsaucie and Polly Schmitt are the new co-directors of the center; the transition began last summer and will continue as Mullally works for the center as a consultant.

Hess said her favorite memory of Mullally comes from the time before they had even met. She had just moved to the island a decade ago, and she and her husband were looking for child care.

“Mully’s name kept coming up,” Hess said. “Then someone said, ‘Oh, you owe it to your children to send them to the Children’s Center.’ I was like, wow, what is this place?”

“Everyone was adamant,” Hess said.

Earlier this month, the Langley City Council unanimously passed a resolution honoring Mullally and her work at the center.

“Mully is part of the fabric of the city. As is the Children’s Center,” said Langley Mayor Neil Colburn.

Colburn actually met Mullally before either of them had moved to Whidbey. Colburn was living in a commune in Berkeley, Calif. in the early ‘70s. For college guys, you either lived in a frat house or a commune, Colburn laughed.

“And I always struggled with kids; I had very little interest in being around them or having them,” he recalled. Mullally had something of a child-care center nearby, however, something that didn’t escape the notice of Colburn’s commune.

“At one point my commune made a collective decision to send me to Mully to learn how to deal better with children,” Colburn said.

Mullally’s work at the center didn’t begin and end with the kids alone. She was guided by a broader approach.

“I believe children deserve a happy childhood,” she said. “Everything I’ve done .. is relationship based.” That’s important because of the special role that people take when parents invite them into the family to help care for their children.

“Raising kids is the most intimate thing you can do,” Mullally said. It’s a complex relationship that requires trust, something that takes time to be developed.

“It doesn’t just come because you’re standing there,” she said.

It also means adopting a philosophy of helping parents shape their parenting. The children play a part, too, taking what they’ve learned at the center home and transferring those positive skills to others.

Mullally came to Whidbey in February 1972. Earlier, she had been on the teacher track at the University of California, Davis. She knew she wanted to work with kids.

“Something happened inside of me where I said, ‘That’s it,’” she recalled.

When she got to Whidbey, however, she found a job that was out of the mainstream for women in the early 1970s: running a gas station.

But as her lease for the Clinton station drew near, folks from the South Whidbey Children’s Center asked her to apply for a position there. She got the job, working in the classroom and managing, as well.

She’s recognized as a pioneer at bringing the High/Scope curriculum — a research-based, “hands-on” participatory learning process — to Whidbey. Mullally also led the campaign to keep high-quality teachers at the center, and has been a devoted advocate for children and childcare at the state level.

Although Mullally is moving on from her director’s post, she will stay connected with the Children’s Center. She will be a consultant for the center over the next two years, handling community relations, fundraising and other efforts.

It’s a good time for the transition from the center, Mullally said, because the center will maintain the same curriculum and values. “I couldn’t leave unless it was in great shape,” she said.

Mullally said she’s thankful that people have given her the chance to play such a vital role in their lives.

“That’s the part I’ll miss, the daily contact,” Mullally said. “You get really close to people. It’s a very tender time.”

“It’s a calling, or a life’s work,” she added.” “I love the work, it’s very rewarding. Now I have children I’ve worked with in their late 20s, early 30s.”

Mullally recalled a visit from a former student, now a young mother with a 2-month-old baby girl, who wanted to pass along things she had learned at the Children’s Center to her daughter.

“She asked, ‘What was that blessing we used to sing?’”

“How much better could it get? So much heart energy in all of that,” she said.

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