Early Childhood Development Center Program Director Champions Community and Family at UM-Flint

By Matt Bueby

With the hustle and bustle of the fall semester in full swing, one does not need to look far to spot our students in their return to campus at UM-Flint. Not to be missed, however, are our youngest learners—from the weeks-old to preschool—who find themselves more engrained in campus life than ever before.

For Joslyn Marinelli, program director of the Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC), it’s all part of the plan: a culmination of years of hard work empowering the family and community atmosphere of the ECDC and showcasing the contributions of the staff and students that make this unique setting such a vital part of our campus makeup.

“I started working here over five years ago, wanting a career in early childhood education,” Marinelli said. “I wasn’t sure at first if this was the type of place I wanted to be (an early childhood center on campus), but after only a few months of being here I realized what a great place it is and what the campus can do for the center.”

“It’s because of my fellow staff that this is such a great place to come every day. From day one, the teachers have been amazing. They love what they do, and that’s just not the same at some other places. I love UM-Flint, and I love working here, and I’m able to see each day that everyone else loves their job too, every teacher, they want to be here. That’s why it works.”

A collaborative living laboratory

Nearly 50 UM-Flint staff—full and part-time, including teachers—fill the team within the Early Childhood Development Center. Founded in 2002, and nationally accredited through the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the ECDC is a “living laboratory” where the students and children come to learn, with teachers co-collaborating with the children.

Marinelli attributes the familial environment in part to the ideals and structure the ECDC puts into practice, which is inspired by the Reggio Emilia teaching philosophy—a belief that children learn through active exploration of their environment. This approach includes all aspects of the classroom, including the teaching staff.

“Teachers have a lot of freedom, they aren’t confined to the classroom, and there is no strict flow of the day,” Marinelli said. “This allows the staff to grow, and has our teachers more excited and willing to try new things.”

The Early Childhood Development Center is one of the founding members of “Michigan Inspirations,” a state of Michigan collaborative group who, along with six other public school systems, colleges, and universities, provides support and professional development for Reggio Emilia inspired educators.

As a part of this group a number of educators from ECDC, including Marinelli, made a study tour to Italy in 2014 to deepen their understanding of the Reggio approach. A subsequent trip took place, and further professional development opportunities continue arise for ECDC staff.

“I have been fortunate to go to Italy twice, the second time with faculty from the Early Childhood department,” Marinelli said. “We will continue to seek to increase our professional development opportunities. But with that, of course, is a need for increased funding.”

The success of ECDC and their collaborative, ever-evolving classroom and curriculum has also helped set a precedent that others across campus look to when identifying an ideal team setting.

"I have had the unique opportunity to watch the passionate and creative staff and teachers of the ECDC embody the mission of our campus through their commitment and dedication to our youngest Wolverines,” said Tonja Petrella, assistant director for staff human resources at UM-Flint.

“The philosophy of the ECDC allows these young community members to learn through exploration and play on their own terms, with our amazing teachers lovingly guiding them along the way. The program is truly a shining star within our campus community, and our teachers and staff are one of a kind!”

Part of the community

With the freedom of the teachers allowing them to explore new ways of getting their youngsters involved, capitalizing on the momentum of the growth of downtown has been one of the impactful ways in which the ECDC has begun to prominently feature their students within the community.

“One of the first things we did when the new Flint Farmers’ Market location opened was encourage more trips into the downtown area,” Marinelli said. “It’s so close to campus, it made a lot of sense.”

Many of the classrooms visit the market on Tuesdays or Thursdays, often choosing healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables to take back for mealtime. The children learn the idea of paying for goods, as they exchange money they have collected, and have even sold some of their artwork at the market to raise money to buy a classroom pet.

“Everyone loves to go, most of all the kids. We will hear stories of how the kids will go with their families on Saturdays and the vendors remember them from their visits during the week. These are small ways in which we help kids and their families come downtown, which helps play a role in the recovery of Flint.”

No journey to the Farmers’ Market is complete without stops at various campus landmarks along the way: bridges and walking paths, and stopping to climb the Fingerprint Mosaic, which often brings a smile to staff, faculty, and students nearby.

“Since the ECDC’s opening in 2002, UM-Flint has enjoyed the sights and sounds of children on playgrounds, in hallways, and taking a stroll across campus,” said Mary Jo Sekelsky, interim vice chancellor for University Advancement. “Nothing brings a smile to my face like the big red buggy!”

There are even more ways the ECDC family has found itself intertwined with the campus community. Starting last year, UM-Flint Staff Council collected handmade gifts from the ECDC children, such as ornaments and small potted plants, to be part of welcome gifts for all new staff members on campus. The Human Resources Department holds a donation drive that benefits early childhood programs on campus, and in turn the children have created artwork as a way to say thanks, which has been prominently displayed throughout campus.

Marinelli says she is always thinking of ways to keep her staff and students involved in the UM-Flint family.

“One thing we are thinking of is having our kids make a map for new students. We are a part of welcoming new staff, and this would be a great way to get intertwined with our new students,” Marinelli said.

“Of course, we always have some of our signature events: Light up the Night and International Night in the winter. And in March, we host mystery readers, where we invite staff and faculty into classrooms to read stories to the children.”

A unique bond

Amongst the many great contributions that the Early Childhood Development Center brings to campus is this: they are UM-Flint staff helping raise children of fellow UM-Flint staff. In fact, a majority of ECDC children have a parent as a member of the UM-Flint community (nearly 60% with at least one staff or faculty parent).

For those who have been impacted by ECDC, or who have children of their own as students, words cannot express how much it means to be a part of the UM-Flint family.

“The support system in place for me as an ECDC parent—as well as a UM-Flint staff member—is incredible,” said Erin Strom, graduate programs recruiter and academic advisor. “Not only is my son in the fantastic hands of the childcare staff while at the ECDC, he’s learning/exploring places both inside his classroom and outside in the community every day, all while he’s on the same campus as I am.”

“Having fellow UM-Flint staff members teach our kids provides an unparalleled, close-knit community support feeling; I love that these people who I am trusting shape my son’s development are also my colleagues,” said Strom.

In addition to the bond between parents and teachers, is the setting that has helped forge support networks and friendships of ECDC parents amongst each other, many of whom are colleagues themselves. 

Strom adds, “I’ve been able to find support and friendship in my fellow ECDC parents who are staff members too. This has allowed me to make new friends and for my son to expand friendships beyond just his classroom.”


It didn’t take long for Joslyn Marinelli to realize that UM-Flint was a great place to be, and now nearly six years later, she and her ECDC team continue to help play a role in making our campus the great place that so many of us enjoy. 

“It truly is a family here. We have children that have graduated, and their families still keep in contact, bringing them to events. Our public safety officers go on field trips with us, they come into the classrooms and have lunch and go sledding with kids in the wintertime. If you ask me my favorite thing about campus, and our team, it’s that everyone is so close, and everyone cares about each other.”

Even through tough times, in the midst of the Flint water crisis, the heightened attention paid from campus towards its most vulnerable learners showed what the UM-Flint family was all about.

“I feel like the campus saved ECDC. With the water filters and testing, you could immediately tell how much campus cares about the kids,” Marinelli said. “Because of our children, they were here first, continually checking the kitchen, classroom, and bathrooms sinks; everyone was concerned from day one. They keep testing too. We see them all the time. Our fellow UM-Flint staff have been great, and we appreciate them so much. They are like our family to us and I’m so happy to be here with them.”

This true sense of family has left Marinelli impressed, and with a strong community relationship growing each day within the ECDC, Marinelli is proud. As for what keeps her motivated for the future, for her it is the continued need to grow professionally and explore new ways of making an impact.

“It’s the newness of everything that I look forward to most. It’s the changes, the growth of the kids, seeing kids graduate, and keeping in touch thereafter. For our team, it’s being willing to think of new ideas or ways to do things, and not being afraid to take chances. We’re able to do that here at UM-Flint, and I wish to be a part of it for a long time coming.”

Campus wishes the same for Joslyn Marinelli and is thankful for the dedication that she, and all of the wonderful staff at ECDC and beyond, provide, to help to make this community a family, and a home.

If you are interested in financially supporting ECDC programs or funds, please visit the giving link below.



ECDC staff and students celebrate winnings from an Active School Challenge Fundraiser.

On campus with Mason Smith, one of ECDC's youngest, during the Spirit and Traditions event in September.
At right, with Grace Kidd, who is entering kindergarten after being with ECDC since infancy.

ECDC Staff in 2017.

At left, with Human Resources Staff during the donation drive. At right, ECDC staff with faculty in Italy in 2016.