December 10, 2013
By Mae Jacobson
Children’s Garden School founder retires after 36 years
It all started with three $20 travelers checks and a contract written on construction paper.
The year was 1977. That summer, Bonnie Steussy and her husband David Edfeldt traveled from South Carolina to Steussy’s home state of Washington. At the behest of her sister, Steussy went to an open house for a small property across the street from where she lived in Issaquah.
Steussy and Edfeldt were both teachers. Steussy said education was a lifelong passion.
“I can remember sitting in my bedroom, dreaming about being a teacher” as a child, she said.
When the couple found out there was a small preschool on the property, they knew it was meant to be. A French teacher at the time, Steussy was still grieving from a tragedy that occurred at her South Carolina high school. The couple offered to buy the preschool, starting a new chapter in their lives and pursuit of education.
“The house was being shown and we walked in and said, ‘We are not interested in your home. We want to buy your school and keep it going. We want to steward this school,’” Steussy said.
The owner wanted Steussy and Edfeldt’s offer so badly that she broke a prior agreement worth $1,000.
“All we had to give her was three $20 travelers checks. We took a piece of construction paper from the preschool, and we wrote out the earnest agreement and we decorated it with felt pens, and that was our legal agreement,” Steussy said.
Despite financial struggle, uncertainty and fear, Steussy and Edfeldt persevered for the sake of the school and their dream.
“We were afraid. We had no money. We didn’t really know how we were going to do this. But every time we went to say, ‘No, we don’t think we’ll do this,’ another door opened,” Steussy said. “The thing that was so incredible was that it was such a strong calling for us to do this, that when a calling is that strong, you can’t but listen to it. It’s like you don’t have a choice.”
That calling manifested itself as The Children’s Garden School, 3 miles south of downtown Issaquah. Children’s Garden offers preschool and kindergarten education to youngsters ages 3 to 5.
Featuring elements such as a staff storyteller and parent education classes, The Children’s Garden seeks to instill in their students and parents a love for learning and imagination, an educational experience Steussy describes as a “birthright.”
No one is more familiar with this birthright than Corey Fernando, a Children’s Garden alum who relocated from West Seattle to Issaquah in order for her kids to attend the same preschool she did.
“I always envisioned my kids going to Children’s Garden. And when we were trying to decide whether to stay in Seattle or move to Issaquah, I asked my friends, ‘What do you remember about preschool?’” Fernando said.
The answer of “little or nothing” may not surprise you, but Fernando’s recollections of preschool may.
“I remember everything,” she said. “I remember the walkway up to the door, the red door. I could remember the classroom and what I would play with. I remember the feeling and the smell, very vivid memories. And to me that spoke volumes.”
After 36 years of creating and maintaining such a powerful, almost magical environment at Children’s Garden, Steussy retired this summer. Although she will no longer serve as the director (she is now “director emeritus”), Steussy will never be far from the school or from the tight-knit community Children’s Garden has created.
“Initially, when I was looking at retirement, I thought, ‘This has been my reason for being and how will life be without that?’ And what I’ve found is that I can be much more present with life,” she said. “But I live here, I can come down and see what is happening at the school.”
When Deborah Smick, a longtime colleague and lead teacher at the Children’s Garden, described her time with Steussy, tears came to her eyes.
“It has just been such an honor to work with Bonnie,” Smick said. “She’s been the most amazing mentor for all these years. She has that magic and that way of making everyone feel like they are the most important person.”
Mae Jacobson is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.