Raising Little Flowers
After keeping her childcare center open during COVID-19, Crystal Hardy-Flowers succumbed to the virus
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Crystal Hardy-Flowers always wanted her early childcare center in the low-income, high-crime neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester in Baltimore, Md., to be a safe place for the 200 children who showed up every day.
Her office was next to the center’s room for infants, and when she arrived at work, she would pop open the door to the screaming babies and say, “Ooh, I want to hug a baby! Give me a baby to kiss!” Little Flowers Early Childhood and Development Center, which she founded in 2008, serves kids from infants all the way to age 12. Teachers take kids on walks around the neighborhood to learn local history, like that Billie Holiday grew up a few blocks away.
The kids already know other things, like if they hear a loud bang to go inside. During the 2015 riots after Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, Hardy-Flowers went out on the street to make sure none of her kids was in trouble:
“I was like, ‘Are you crazy, lady? Get in here!’” recalled Tracey Davenport, the longtime office manager at Little Flowers. “She was like, ‘No, we need to make sure that everybody’s OK.’” When someone killed the father of a 2-year-old at Little Flowers in 2017, the center’s staff members, who are mostly from the neighborhood, attended the funeral. Hardy-Flowers never wanted to close the center during snowstorms and would joke to staff members, “Don’t break your leg, because you’re coming to work tomorrow.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the neighborhood depended on Little Flowers. Many parents in the neighborhood were essential workers, and they needed childcare. Hardy-Flowers applied for Little Flowers to be one of the childcare centers that remained open for essential workers’ children, which the local government approved. She talked to her staff and told them if anyone was nervous, she’d understand if they wanted to leave. Most Little Flowers parents were healthcare workers, which added to the risk.
“We knew that no matter what, that we had to make it work,” said 60-year-old Davenport. “[The parents] had to go to work, no matter what. We were going to make sure that they had their childcare and the children were in a safe place.”
Little Flowers had its after-school teachers come in during the school day to help students who were doing remote learning. Even with that help, many of the children fell behind in school, so this year the center added more tutoring staff.
Since then, Little Flowers has only had to shut down twice for two COVID-19 cases, following city health department protocols. But then late last year Hardy-Flowers contracted the disease herself. An ambulance came to get her shortly before Christmas, and she died in the hospital on New Year’s Eve at age 55.
Jasmine Hardy, her 31-year-old niece, is now running the center. Hardy-Flowers had been training her for years to run the place, but she hadn’t expected to be doing it so soon. She still finds it difficult to go near her aunt’s office, where Hardy-Flowers’ diplomas and awards still hang on the walls.
Hardy-Flowers won custody of and had raised Hardy since she was 5. She was “really the only person that I could count on … that was like my backbone,” said Hardy. Her niece tried to get her aunt to limit her work hours for Little Flowers during the pandemic, but “she was going to come in here every day regardless.”
On a recent October morning, parents showed up at the door to Little Flowers with their masked kids. After a temperature check, they passed them off to Davenport. The Little Flowers teachers were working on their next theme of “community and helpers,” and they planned to take the children around the city to look at different murals.
I met Hardy-Flowers in 2017 when I was walking the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood with a local pastor who suggested I stop by and interview her. I asked her about how the neighborhood felt to her.
“We might see police cars going up and down the street, helicopters. That’s sort of a normal day,” she told me. “It has its ups and downs, but … there are a bunch of people in this community who love their community.”
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