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Kidding around

Woman of the Year Patsy Chronis

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Patsy Chronis prefers to remain behind the scenes. But Monday, she took center stage when she was named UIC's Woman of the Year.

As director of the Children's Center, her work benefits children -- but she works primarily with adults.

She is a confidant to many of the center's parents, who are UIC students, faculty or staff.

And she looks out for the next generation as a teacher in the College of Education

"Everything I do is for children," Chronis said.

Her love for children started early. Growing up in Atlanta, she liked to take her neighbors' kids to the park. After college she was a social worker in child welfare. That experience convinced her that she wanted to work with families while they were still intact.

"I wanted to be in there early to help with problems," Chronis said.

"Once the child is removed it is difficult to get back -- not impossible, but difficult.

"I wanted to do early intervention."

After she finished her master's in early childhood education at Loyola University, she stayed in Chicago to work at the Chicago Child Care Society.

That same year, 1972, the UIC Children's Center was established.

"The center came out of the women's movement. It was women who wanted to see child care on campus," Chronis said.

She arrived on campus in 1974 for a five-month appointment to help manage the center. Campus officials asked her to stay as director.

"The idea from the beginning has been to have high-quality child care on a sliding fee," she said.

There were 40 kids in the program then. Today, the

center serves 96 children ages 2 years, nine months old, to 6 years old, with two locations on each side of campus. Fees are still based on the family's income and other financial resources. Most of the families are lower to mid-income, she said, with annual resources under $40,000.

Teachers create a supportive environment for the children focused on socialization -- how to be with other kids, how to negotiate, who's turn is next.

"We don't teach the kids here, but they learn," she said.

"We have a whole classroom to learn from, but we take the kids outside, encourage them to be physically active. And we want the girls to play just like the boys."

The staff includes 18 teachers and seven student workers.

Her first requirement: they must like children. The second requirement is education; all have undergraduate degrees in early childhood and some have master's. Though children have always amazed Chronis -- "what they come up with and what they observe" -- she doesn't want to be in the classroom with them.

"I want to shape and mold the program. Teaching all day wouldn't be for me," she said.

"My door is always open and the kids stop by to show me something. I never tire of knock-knock jokes. "

Instead, much of her one-on-one work is with the children's parents.

"A lot of what I do is confidential. I give support to parents," she said. "We are very involved with families."

The center celebrates the parents' accomplishments -- getting an A on a paper, graduation or a promotion at work. The staff are there for the down times, as well.

"Sometimes we help with a variety of counseling services," she said.

"We do it very quietly."

In her 21 years as director, Chronis says she has seen more changes in parents than in children.

"Parents are strained in terms of time. I see them working towards goals -- a degree, tenure or a job with more responsibility."

The biggest changes in children Chronis attributes to television.

"They are so overwhelmed by TV. They act out what

they see and sometimes what they act out is violent play, with the intent of hurting somebody.

"Children are growing up faster," she said with a sigh.

Over 21 years, the budget has remained a constant challenge.

"We are underfunded; we barely make it through each year."

The center's resourceful staff uses junk materials for art projects; they're always looking for donations.

Every year, Chronis finds time to teach a course in the College of Education on parent and staff relations in early education.

"When I first started teaching I was terrified. Now I enjoy it," she said. "I don't have to have all the answers."

Chronis spent much of last year in a personal battle of her own -- undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. She worked a flexible schedule from home (she had to stay away from the children for fear of infection while her immune system was weakened).

In June she got good news: no more cancer.

"Now I want to support other women," she said, adding,

"I want to encourage every woman to have a mammogram when they are at that age."

Now that she's back to work full time, Chronis is trying to "get things back to normal." Her long-term goal is to expand the center's services.

At 55, she has no plans to retire.

"I can't imagine getting up and not coming to the Children's Center," she said.

"I can't imagine doing anything else. I have lots of independence and flexibility here. The staff make it a high-quality program," she said. "I want to make sure kids are always cared for.

"Child care is one of those opportunities for me to support families with young children."

Chronis is touched that her behind-the-scenes work has made an impact.

"I wish that every woman could be woman of the year," she said.

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