Where Needs Are Nourished
Fannie Battle Day Home has been taking care of at-risk children for 125 years
It’s been 25 years since her father died, but Nettie Black can still remember the advice he had given her when she was at a crossroads in her career.
“Ms. Nettie,” as she is known by the children and parents she has served at Fannie Battle Day Home for Children for the past quarter-century, was weighing a couple of job offers she had received back in the early 1990s. She had just left a position at a daycare in Nashville, and one of the moms from there had asked her to start immediately as her full-time nanny for her child. The other opportunity was with Fannie Battle, at the time a 100-year-old child care center serving at-risk children primarily from East Nashville. The latter held the more attractive offer, but it meant waiting a while before the job would actually become available.
Dad’s advice was to be patient.
“I talked to my dad, and he said I should wait on Fannie Battle,” Black recalls, as she takes a break from disciplining some boys who aren’t exactly getting along on the center’s playground. “ ‘I think that would be better for you,’ he told me. ‘That way you can go on vacation, you can have insurance, and other benefits.’ So I came here, and two weeks after that my dad passed. And this has been my home ever since. I love it here.”
Fannie Battle has served as home to thousands of children since it was founded 125 years ago by Miss Fannie Battle, a children’s advocate who saw a need to help kids who were unsupervised while their parents went to work. Now the oldest child care center in Middle Tennessee, the Fannie Battle Day Home is as iconic to Nashville as are the Ryman Auditorium, the Parthenon, and The Hermitage Hotel. Even those families not directly served by the day home have perhaps participated in — or are at least familiar with — Fannie Battle Caroling for Kids, the center’s annual fundraiser which is also commemorating a milestone this year with its 100th anniversary.
“For an organization to have served the community for that many years is pretty amazing,” says Melanie Shinbaum, who has been with Fannie Battle since 2013 and became executive director in June 2015. “You would love to say the need doesn’t exist anymore, but it does, and we’re serving the same needs (as were served 125 years ago). I think throughout the years, Fannie Battle has always had this core of serving at-risk working families, providing care while the parents work.
“For parents and families to improve for themselves, they need to be able to work, but they also need to know their children are cared for in a quality way,” Shinbaum adds. “Otherwise, if it weren’t for Fannie Battle and programs like us, they might make choices to either not work or leave their children in care that certainly wouldn’t be as educational or as enriching.”
The dynamics may have been different, but the concerns Miss Battle faced as a teacher and social worker in late 19th century Nashville were at their core the same as today’s. She observed young children roaming the streets while their parents were away at work, so to help address that condition and to protect at least some of the children from possible danger or other consequences, Miss Battle rented a room and began caring for children at what was then called the Addison Avenue Day Home.
Miss Battle was also part of an effort to open what was known as the Fresh Air Camp in the Craggie Hope community west of Nashville. It was used as a vacation spot and convalescence facility for impoverished mothers and their children, and in the early part of the 20th century, it served as a place for recuperation during the tuberculosis outbreaks of the time.
The day home took on its current name upon the death of Fannie Battle in 1924, and 34 years later the organization moved to Shelby Avenue and expanded its care to a greater age range of children. It stayed in that facility until 2011, when it relocated to its current home at 108 Chapel Ave. in what was originally a church and later a small private school.
“Our square footage was approximately doubled, and as we moved, we increased the number of children that we served,” Shinbaum says. “We have increased [enrollment] two more times, and still have room to expand, and we now have 126 students (ages 6 weeks to 12 years) fully enrolled.” Fannie Battle has a staff of between 25 and 30 people, depending on needs and time of year, and it benefits from around 2,000 volunteer hours every year. Some on the staff have been with the organization long enough to now be seeing children of former students come through the day home. Nettie Black has seen it all.
“I’m all over the place,” she says of her various duties, adding that her favorite part of her job is “when I get here in the morning and see the smiles, the families waving out of their car, saying, ‘Hey, Ms. Nettie.’ I enjoy watching my kids grow up, move on, get married. Some even come back and say they want to work in daycare because of me. ‘You inspired me to do this,’ they’ll tell me. It’s rewarding in itself. It’s not about the pay. Your heart has to be in it, and my heart is really in it.”
One of the students who returned to Fannie Battle as a young adult is Ameera Northern, now 20 and a rising senior majoring in psychology at Tennessee State University. She participated in a Nashville Public Library program known as TOTAL (Totally Outstanding Teens Advocating for the Library), and one of the group’s projects was going to various schools and daycare centers to talk about bullying and internet safety. It included a stop at Fannie Battle, where Northern had attended as a preschooler and for after-school care.
“[Fannie Battle] was a really good experience for me,” says Northern, who grew up in East Nashville. “I really liked it. When I found out we were going to go to Fannie Battle to talk about bullying, I was excited because I hadn’t been back in a long time.”
Like Northern, most of the current and former students at Fannie Battle are from the East Side. “The majority of our families live fairly close by,” Shinbaum says. “Most are from East Nashville, Inglewood, and Madison. We have some from the downtown loop area. They’re primarily at-risk children. That has always been our mission, and it is still the core of who we serve.”
Ninety percent of the children enrolled at Fannie Battle are from poverty-level or low-income families, 86 percent are minorities, and nearly 80 percent are from single-parent homes. One of the stipulations for enrollment is that families must be working and/or in school — 75 percent are currently working, 21 percent are working and attending school, and 4 percent are in school.
The day home provides many families with tuition aid, and less than half of that funding and other costs comes from corporate or individual donors or in the form of grants. Some 60 percent of Fannie Battle’s operating budget is through fundraising, and a key component of that over the last century has been the Fannie Battle Caroling for Kids campaign held each December.
Miss Battle’s day home was starting to hit hard times financially, and by 1916, the organization was on the verge of having to close its doors. To prevent that from happening, some associates came up with the idea of caroling as a fundraiser, enlisting volunteers throughout Nashville to carol door-to-door on Christmas Eve. The fundraiser now runs Dec. 1-24, with volunteers in nearly a dozen different districts in the city participating.
“I think the way the community has supported Fannie Battle [has been a key to the day home’s longevity],” Shinbaum says. “That’s really where it gets into our history of caroling for kids. To have a fundraiser that’s still your largest fundraiser after 100 years really speaks to the involvement of the community. Just about anybody who has lived here for a number of years has some sort of story about caroling for Fannie Battle.”
Cassie Morgan, the day home’s development manager, happened to meet someone whose mother had worked for Fannie Battle back in the 1950s and ’60s, and the person said she remembers caroling for the organization as a child. “She had just moved back from the West Coast a few months ago,” Morgan says. “She took some information and said she wanted to do it again. It was so cool to meet someone who had done it so long ago and it had impacted her life to the point that she wanted to come back and do it again.”
A more recent fundraiser for Fannie Battle is the annual Yum!East festival, which features food and drinks from more than 30 restaurants and breweries as well as live music. Held at Pavilion East on Fatherland Street every June, the event has become a “must-do” on the East Side and typically sells out.
Fannie Battle Day Home has, indeed, enjoyed the buoyancy of community support through the years, and results have continuously shown an impressive return on investment for not only East Nashville, but also the whole city. The facility is licensed by the state with the highest 3-Star Rating and has maintained that level since the rating system was implemented in 2001.
“We have organizational outcomes that we commit to both as an organization and to our funders,” Shinbaum replies when asked how Fannie Battle measures success. “For our youngest children, we do a developmental assessment called the Brigance, which we do in the fall and the spring. It measures infants and toddlers to make sure they’re developing as they should and lets teachers and parents know if there is something they may want to work on or reach out for additional help.
“In our pre-K and preschool classes, we partner with United Way’s Read to Succeed literacy program and Metro Nashville Public Schools,” she continues. “The goal is for kids to start kindergarten with their peers regardless of their backgrounds. We have great results on those outcomes. For our school-age program, we receive money from the [state] lottery’s after-school funding. It allows a lot of enrichment opportunities. We track their report cards with the goal that they’ll maintain or improve grades.”
The Fannie Battle facility itself is warm and inviting, whether it’s in the darkened gymnasium where toddlers are taking afternoon naps, in the various classrooms where age-appropriate activities are being conducted, or in the eco-friendly playground area with raised garden beds, beautiful landscaping, and eye-catching murals. Children and families also benefit from a caring staff and a first-class roster of volunteers, who are called on for everything from tutoring to IT support.
“Ms. Nettie,” whose hugs are as warm as a July morning, says she tries to make a connection with every single child.
“They’re all different individuals, and you have to talk to them individually,” Black explains. “They come from different families, different places, different cultures. That’s my big thing — getting to know the moms, the dads, the grandmothers, the aunts. That helps me to know the children as well, and it helps them to open up a little bit more when the families talk to me. It helps the kids to feel more comfortable.”