By Barrett Seaman—
Working parents in the rivertowns have choices as to where to send their children while they are on the job, but there are day care centers and there are day care centers. And then there is the Irvington Children’s Center, the ICC.
Over the years, hundreds of parents living within the Irvington School District have felt they had a choice above all others: the ICC, housed five days a week in the Sunday school wing of the Church of St. Barnabas on North Broadway.
The source of their confidence for many of those years was Lynn Lutomski, 65, the Center’s director for the past 20 years and an uber-mom to hundreds of youngsters she watched over and guided since she began work there in 1996.
This past month, Lutomski bid farewell, as she and her husband Dave announced they were moving to the Eastern Shore area of Delaware, where Lynn, the author, so far, of seven children’s books, plans to continue to write. She leaves behind her a trail of accolades, appreciative parents and a legion of loyal alums some of whom are now in their thirties. In a couple of weeks, Lynn plans to have coffee in New York City with one ICC graduate who is now 26.
The ICC is a state-registered program for kids from Kindergarten to Fifth Grade. “Children learn through play,” is how the Center’s web site explains its approach. It is not academic, as some after-school programs have become recently, although it does offer a special supervised homework room four days a week. Learning is achieved through participation in arts and crafts, board games and Legos, music, drama, cooking, science, sports, and movement. “Children have the opportunity to choose active or quiet play on both an individual or group basis,” states the web site.
The school operates on three shifts, beginning at 2:30 and ending at 6:00 p.m. Tuition ranges from $105 a month for one day-a-week until 4:00 p.m. up to $600-a-month for five days until 6:00 p.m.
Lynn leads with a very light hand, gently steering her charges towards self-actualization, towards learning to make better choices after making a mistake, towards mastering a skill, whether it’s a Lego castle or the jungle gym. “If there were no mistakes, there would be no erasers,” she says in a rare resort to an aphorism.
She relies on imagination and shuns the use of technology in fostering active play. “There hasn’t been a screen (cell phone, tablet or computer) in here in 17 years,” she claims.
Her approach has won the confidence of generations of Irvington parents. “She has allowed women to go back to the work force and apply themselves and not worry about their kids,” says Janine Thompson, who has two ICC alums in her household. “She has the innate ability to recognize that children shouldn’t be looked upon as individuals of lesser intelligence,” adds Thompson. “She believes every child is an individual waiting to become a grownup.”
During her decades at ICC, Lutomski has had kids with learning disabilities, behavioral issues, diabetics and one child who was blind. Success is measured by their individual triumphs, not some theoretical benchmark. “I watch children make milestones,” she says—like mastering the jungle gym. “When they feel validated and formed, they feel safe.”
Parents can be as much or more of a challenge than their children, she acknowledges but adds: “95% of my parents have been wonderful.” Enough said.
Lynn Lutomski first learned of the ICC through her son Dylan, now 32, when he came home from Dows Lane School and announced that he wanted to go to the Children’s Center. “I want to be with my friends,” he declared. She had never heard of the place but asked her friend Linda Pierpoint, who happened to be a parishioner at St. Barnabas. Linda introduced Lynn to Nancy Rote, the ICC’s director. Not long after, Lynn joined Nancy as an assistant. It was the best of both worlds: “Dylan got to be with his friends. His mother landed the best job ever, and who was I kidding? I got to be with my soon after school every day.”
Nancy Rote and Lynn saw the world of children the same way. “We shared similar philosophies about the importance of learning through play and the belief that children should always be heard and made to feel uniquely special. We were the female version of Fred Rodgers (or so we hoped) in our own little neighborhood.”
When she first joined the staff, ICC had 55 kids. To meet demand, they raised their licensed limit to 69, hiring the requisite staff to meet the state’s ratio of one adult to every ten children. The additional 14 youngsters, she said, made it seem like they were “working in a tornado.” But they managed. Nancy Rote stayed as Director until 9/11 happened. It was a watershed event for her, leading to her retirement that year.
The year 2020 was also a watershed year for Lynn and the ICC, as it was for every individual and organization. Lynn shut the Center down in March of that year, praying that they would be able to re-open when the virus passed. When they did a survey of families that summer, the response was minimal. The ICC re-opened on September 21st last year with 15 children. Recognizing that the program’s future was not sustainable, the vestry of St. Barnabas, their landlord, voted to suspend rent. “We started paying again this past March,” says Lynn, “but at less than half what it had been.”
“We wanted to do everything we could to support ICC, because we would be supporting all the families,” says Rev. Gareth Evans, the Rector of St. Barnabas. “There is a deep symbiosis between our mission to care for the whole person and Lynn’s care for the child.”
“She was a steady hand as director for the past 20 years,” says Jay Staropoli, a member of the ICC’s governing board. “She made the board members’ job that much easier because the children of the Center always came first in all the decisions she made as director.”
One of the features of the ICC is something called “the change room.” It is filled with various costumes and outfits, and the kids are free to go there and be want they want to be. It feeds their imaginations and hence their growth. After a quarter of a century, Lynn Lutomski is ready for a change. When she relocates to Delaware in September, she hopes to continue writing, though what exactly isn’t clear. She has written seven rhyming children’s books (e.g. “Emily Oliver and the Mess that Followed Her,” and “Courageous Ignatius Will Not Be Contagious,” a nod to the perils of the pandemic).
Janine Thompson thinks she should write about her experience and philosophy of learning. “To me Lynn is a modern-day Maria Montessori, resorting back to the basics of play, allowing the children to experience sheer joy while learning and practicing healthy social interactions.”
Lynn’s philosophy is entrenched in the way the ICC operates, as it will continue to under the leadership of her successor, Susan Daly, of whom Lynn wrote: “The Children’s Center is far from done and will live on with a special new director with new visions, hopes and dreams. “It will come back better than ever with a brand new choreographer, wearing shiny new dance shoes, without missing a beat.”