For children at Creative Paths Learning Center in Skokie, this new home is a place for fun, for learning, for imagination and play, for bonding with adults and others their own age.
For the father and daughter who run the place, Creative Paths Learning Center is still a dream. Sometimes, Executive Director Amber Grafman has to remember that it’s a dream come true.
“This is our third week, and I still can’t believe we did this,” she said. “I wake up, and I have to remember that it’s here. We’ve been working toward this for a long time.”
The new center, which accommodates children from infancy through kindergarten, occupies space near a visible corner on the 5100 block of Dempster Street. Located on the west end of Skokie — close to the Edens Expressway and Morton Grove — it should be able to draw from various communities as word of mouth spreads.
Creative Paths Learning Center is spacious, a warm and friendly venue divided into rooms based on age. There is personal and hands-on attention by a dedicated staff, and the bond that is forged between them and children under their care is palpable.
Among the many other activities, a pre-Thanksgiving project has the children raring to go. Amber and her team paint children’s hands — that in itself is loads of fun — before the children push their palms down on paper, leaving a colorful shape that will serve as the body of a turkey. (The hand-painted turkey is part of a card to be delivered to the children’s parents.)
“Does that feel tickly?” Amber asks one of the children, her arms wrapped around him as she applies brown paint to his suddenly colorful hand. She doesn’t really get an answer, but by the smile lighting up his face, it can’t be too bad.
Amber’s teaching career began in Calumet City, not with young children as one might expect, but as a middle school science teacher. She later taught in Grayslake.
“Teaching middle school, just like teaching early childhood, requires a special person,” she said. “I went from teaching seventh grade to teaching 3-year-olds, and it was the best decision I ever made.”
The transformation was all the more surprising since Amber never believed she could teach children younger than third grade. She hung onto that belief from her student teaching through her full-time teaching and until she did some volunteer work at children’s centers near her home. Then she had an epiphany.
“I figured, ‘Wait a minute. It’s backwards. I’d rather be with this age group rather than the one I’m working with,’” she recalled.
From the start, Creative Paths Learning Center was a project that sprang from a close-knit family.
Amber grew up in Skokie, and Creative Paths was to be the realization of a dream shared by both her and her parents. Sadly, Amber’s mother, Esther Benveniste, did not live long enough to see the center open its doors this fall.
Esther was an artist and a jewelry designer, a business owner, and a teacher of toddlers and 2-year-olds at the same center in Arlington Heights where Amber eventually worked.
Amber left there to have her first child and later became an assistant director and director at another children’s center, her mother still working in Arlington Heights.
“The idea (of Creative Paths) was collaborative between me and my mom,” Amber said. “My mom and I started talking, and at first it was just joking. It was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we opened our own center?’”
They talked about mother and daughter working together again, Amber’s kids and Esther’s grandkids coming to the center, a family business springing to life.
“My mom and I — I think we called each other five times a day,” Amber said. “We were extremely close.”
Esther was instrumental in all aspects of building Creative Paths Learning Center, and there isn’t a day that goes by when Amber and her father, Barry Benveniste, a director at the school, forget that, they say.
Esther helped her daughter purchase and collect almost all of the materials and decorum for Creative Paths; she had a say in the architecture and even the colors of the walls.
“The idea of the school and what we wanted it to be and the philosophy — that’s her,” Amber said.
Until the very end and even as she was ill, Esther fought to remain a part of this family dream.
“When I work 12 hour days and then I go home and have to do more, I don’t care,” Amber said. “I like it, and I know that it would have been easier with her here in probably every aspect of my life. But she will live on through here.”
Following the messy turkey art project, Barry takes each child to the sink and holds their hands under flowing water, the paint dissipating down the drain so the children are clean again.
Although his job is mostly on the administrative side, Barry is at Creative Paths all the time, interacting with kids, helping his daughter and her staff.
Dad became as much a part of this project as mother and daughter. A Skokie real estate broker for 40 years with a degree in psychology, Barry previously worked with special education children. He was looking to retire, and Creative Paths was a perfect solution.
“I knew I wanted to be part of this — maybe not as much on the teaching level but more on the administrative level,” he said.
It was Barry who found the space for the center at 5129 Dempster St., which had sat vacant for several years and was a previous home to a sports card shop.
Creative Paths Learning Center opened with under a dozen children enrolled and five full-time staff members. The enrollment, though, continues to grow.
“To be in on the ground floor of something this huge and with this kind of quality, I wanted to be part of it,” said part-time teacher Donna Burt. Burt is a retired teacher from Lake Forest with a master’s degree in early childhood.
“I’ve seen a lot of schools and I know what’s quality,” she said. “I’ve known (the owners) for a long time, and they’re wonderful people to work for. When I heard this was a project they were working on years ago, I kept telling them not to forget me.”
Immediately noticeable is teacher Eden Lee’s special rapport with the small children who snuggle close to her during reading time. Desmond, 2, of Morton Grove, sits on her lap, and they turn pages together, discussing the illustrations that they see.
The kids of Creative Paths Learning Center come from all over the area — Palatine and Skokie, Morton Grove and Evanston and Lincolnwood. Everything that goes on here feels fun and playful, but also a potentially “teachable moment.”
“We use the philosophy that everybody learns in their own way and at their own pace,” Amber said. “Creativity in whatever facet in which they’re creative will aid them in reaching their highest potential. I feel that they’re never too young to have a curriculum.”
The curriculum and philosophy of Creative Paths can be found on the school’s website at www.creativepathslearningcenter.com
“You look at children playing,” added Barry, “but it’s not only playing. That’s how they learn. We can set up the environment for them to have what they need and then they follow their own direction. A lot of times the best thing is to sit back and let them explore and let them create.”
Creativity in a safe place is a philosophy that sits behind this family-run school, a philosophy shared by mother and father and daughter at the very conception of Creative Paths Learning Center.
Amber and Barry continue to pour their time, and even more importantly their heart, into this new preschool, keeping alive the spirit they shared with Esther.
“Every second that I’m here, every toy that I see, I remember where we got it,” said Amber, emotionally bringing back her beloved mother. “Every theme that I think of, I think of what she would plan for it. When I plan, I think of what creative juices she would come up with. I think of her every second.”
The legacy Esther Benveniste leaves behind is not only carried on by her daughter and husband or even by the warm and welcoming children’s preschool that the family has developed.
It carries on through the young children who will be entering the doors of Creative Paths Learning Center for years to come — playing, learning, trusting and smiling during the most formative years of their lives.