Cindy Harrington Heart & Mind Award: Past Recipients

2023: Juliet Bitanga

Juliet Bitanga immigrated to Kodiak Island in 2009 from Laoag City, Philippines. While in the Philippines, she owned and operated a small cafeteria business and took care of elderly family members. In Kodiak, Juliet worked for a year as a cannery seafood processor. With the encouragement of a Filipina educator, she applied for licensure and established her own child care program in 2015.

She has three children and has raised them all successfully. Juliet weaves her passion for taking care of children by joyfully and lovingly caring for Kodiak’s kids as her own. With every meal she serves, she shares her love of cooking native Philippine delicacies, giving the children in her care a chance to taste the nutritious food.

Juliet received an associate degree in secretarial science from the Philippines. Through her persistence, she was able to translate these education credentials and begin developing her program. Juliet’s nominator emphasizes that “she has prioritized continuous learning and self-improvement, both for herself and her staff, to provide the highest quality of care for the children attending her facility.” She eventually joined Learn & Grow and has worked up to achieving a Level 2 certification. This professional development motivates her to continue her education and participate in the Alaska System for Early Education Development (Alaska SEED), so she can keep providing high quality and professional child care for children in Kodiak.

“This commitment to staying informed has translated to innovative and evidence-based approaches being implemented at Juliet’s Daycare. Juliet actively engages in regular self-reflection and seeks feedback from parents like me to identify areas where she can improve as a childcare provider and business owner”.

Juliet collaborates with her two older children and the parents of the children in her care to implement creative ways to nurture them. Over the years, she has secured state and local grants to improve the safety of her facility, purchase new appliances, and implement new activities. Every day, she works to ensure the children have a joyful experience while preparing them with the skills they need to thrive when they start school.

“Juliet demonstrates a genuine passion for engaging with families at her daycare, recognizing the importance of establishing strong partnerships between caregivers and parents to provide the best possible care and educational experience for the children”.

Juliet plans to continue improving her child care services in the years to come.

2022: Jan Marquis

Jan Marquis founded Adventures in Learning in Kenai, Alaska in 2012. Her two children, Jett, and Alexis were her inspiration for opening the program. What started out as a small, in-home preschool later turned into a licensed childcare center, focusing on quality early education.

Jan has a passion for teaching and cannot imagine her life without all the inspiration, energy, and joy that young children bring the world! She strives to provide an inclusive, diverse early education environment that is accessible to as many children as possible. Her center reflects her personal philosophy that early education is about fostering the whole child through developmentally appropriate activities and play based environments that are inclusive of all children. She believes all children should have access to high quality, low-cost early education.

Jan has been described as a one woman show – as owner, director, teacher, custodian, accountant, nurse, counselor, and curriculum specialist, she does it all! Jan regularly takes professional development courses and has been enrolled in an online program to obtain her degree in education (all while raising her own children and founding her own preschool/child care program).

She recognizes parents as a child’s first teacher and invites them to participate in their child’s active learning by hosting many events and field trips. She asks for parent input to design curriculum to meet the needs of each individual child.

As a lifelong Alaskan, she is connected to her local community and can direct families to helpful community resources. She often collaborates with the local school district and other community organizations to help students who experience disabilities transition to public school.

Jan’s nominator shared “I remember the first time dropping my daughter off at preschool. Ms. Jan would greet her with the biggest hugs, smiles, and chit-chat! I thought that my daughter was Jan’s favorite because of the way she was greeted with so much LOVE! But the more I took my child and started noticing how other kids were greeted, I realized that my kid was not the “favorite.” Jan greets EVERY single kid with the same excitement, presence, and out-pouring of love that she gave to my child.”

2021: Lupita Alvarez

Lupita Alvarez of Montessori Borealis Children’s House in Juneau is the recipient of thread’s 2021 Cindy Harrington Heart & Mind Award. She received the award at a virtual ceremony held on Facebook Live on April 15, 2021.

Over 20 years ago, Lupita got involved in early childhood education, particularly with the Montessori method, wanting to be a well-informed educator and administrator. She obtained her Montessori Certification at the Primary Level ages 3-6+ and her Master’s Degree in Education, later obtaining an Elementary Education, M.A.T. from the University of Alaska, Southeast to be able to teach in the public school system.

At the time of the award, Lupita was the lead teacher and administrator of the Montessori Borealis Children’s House in Juneau. After many years working in the Juneau School District, she was interested in bringing the Montessori method to more of Juneau’s young children. Lupita worked with the local school board and superintendent in 2015 to create the Children’s House as part of the Montessori Borealis Public School. The Children’s House offers Pre-K and Kindergarten Montessori program to children ages 3 to 5 within the public school system.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lupita’s program was temporarily closed. She immediately looked for creative ways to engage her children and their families virtually, including conducting Zoom class meetings, creating a class website, publishing lessons on YouTube, and designing weekly activity plans for parents to implement with their children at home. At the same time, she worked with her local and regional early childhood community to learn about how to safely re-open her program. As a result, Montessori Borealis Children’s House was the only Pre-K and Kindergarten program that was in-person at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. 

2020: AnneMarie Mattacchione

Pictured, left to right, are AEYC-SEA Executive Director Joy Lyon, thread COO Melinda Myers, thread Board President Sen Tan, 2020 award winner AnneMarie Mattacchione, and thread Northern/Interior Assistant Director Stacie Dublin.

AnneMarie began her career as a preschool teacher at the Play N Learn Child Care Center in Fairbanks with a desire to work with young children and a love for education. Over the years she held many roles from head teacher to center director to administrator in both Head Start and Early Head Start programs. In fact, she served as the Administrator of the first Early Head Start program in Fairbanks.

She has taught all ages from birth to adults and continues to share her love of teaching today as full time faculty at the University of Alaska Community and Technical College. As her contributions to the field grew so did her personal achievements — attaining an AAS Degree in Early Childhood Education, a Bachelor’s Degree in Child Development and Family Studies, and a Master’s Degree in Education and Learning. She didn’t stop there, continuing on with professional certifications and national memberships, being a CDA adviser, and co-authoring a textbook “Child Development a Practical Guide to the First Years of Life.” Read AnneMarie’s acceptance speech.

2019: Christina Jurenka

Pictured left to right are thread board member Starr Marsett, Nellie Edmund, thread Board member Sen Tan, and thread CEO Stephanie Berglund.

Christina Jurenka of Anchorage is the recipient of thread’s 2019 Cindy Harrington Heart & Mind Award. Chris is the operations manager at Providence Center for Child Development and has been an early educator for more than 35 years. Chris is a leader in the classroom, encouraging children to learn and grow toward their full potential. She has been described as an expert in the field and as someone who embodies the spirit of perseverance. She is also a firm supporter of continued education and encourages professional development opportunities for her staff and others in the early and care learning field.Chris is the fifth recipient of the annual Cindy Harrington Heart & Mind Award, an award that highlights an individual currently employed in the field of early care and learning who exhibits strength of character, commitment to excellence, professional determination, and has an impassioned spirit. Cindy Harrington was one of the founding mothers of early childhood work in Alaska, as well as a member of thread’s board of directors until her untimely passing in May of 2014. thread recognizes a professional in the field of early care and learning who embodies the same heart and mind leadership style that the late Cindy Harrington portrayed throughout her career.

2018: Nellie Edmund

Pictured left to right are thread board member Lindsie Mills, Nellie Edmund, thread CEO Stephanie Berglund, and Sen Tan, thread board chair.

The recipient of the 2018 Cindy Harrington Heart & Mind Award is Nellie Edmund of Alakanuk, AK. Nellie is the teacher director at Alakanuk Head Start and has taught over three generations of Head Start children in her 40-year career. Nellie is a leader in the classroom, encouraging children to learn and grow toward their full potential. She is committed to learning as well, and while working full-time, supporting a family and maintaining traditional cultural activities, Nellie, after 25 years of experience in Head Start, earned her AA degree in Early Childhood in December 2005. She helped her staff persevere after Alakanuk Head Start caught fire in 2014, and is highly respected by the parents in her village.

2017: Samantha Adams

Pictured above are Samantha Adams (middle) with Joy Lyon (left) and thread CEO Stephanie Berglund (right).

The recipient of the 2017 Cindy Harrington Heart & Mind Award is Samantha Adams. She was selected for this award because she demonstrates the same “heart & mind” style leadership that Cindy defined. Opening her TLC Child Care in 2006, she has made a commitment to providing the highest quality of care for the children under her care and does this through a play-based curriculum with many new and exciting adventures for her children. It is her philosophy to provide high-quality service in a safe, nurturing environment. Ensuring her children are exposed to a variety of experiences, she takes the children on trips to the Folk Fest, various theatre performances, The Children’s Dental Health Fair and many other local events or activities, along with the adoption of several goats and a couple sheep.She is described in her nomination as having the motto – Messy is Magic! An active advocate for the early care and learning profession, Samantha is a member of AEYC, participant in The Hearts Initiative, Best Beginnings and Strengthening Families and active in her local community. Samantha is focused on hiring and retaining a qualified staff and strives to help them grow professionally through training and educational opportunities.

2016: Patty Meritt

Patty Meritt was selected for this award because she has demonstrated throughout her career the same “heart & mind” style leadership that Cindy defined.

For more than 40 years, Patty brought her passion and expertise to the early childhood field—first working directly with young children in several early childhood education programs, including one she co-owned and operated. She later became the Executive Director of the Play N Learn Corporation in Fairbanks, which is now known as Thrivalaska and is part of the thread Statewide Network delivering services to the Northern/Interior region.

Eventually Patty started sharing her extensive knowledge with other early education professionals as a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks where she was hired as full-time faculty and program coordinator in 1997. She was responsible for bringing the UAF Early Childhood Education degree 100% online. And, since starting at UAF, she has been nominated for the Usibelli Teacher of the Year award six times, including this year.

She is the co-founder of KIDPAC in Alaska; she is the chair of the Governor’s Interim Commission on Children & Youth; she has worked throughout rural Alaska as a CDA rep and has delivered early childhood courses onsite in Barrow, Kotzebue, Nome, Bethel, and Cantwell; she co-authored the textbook Constructive Guidance & Discipline; PLUS she has been the president of her local AEYC affiliate 3 times!

2015: Jennifer Clark

The recipient of the first annual Cindy Harrington Heart & Mind Award was Jennifer Clark. Jen was selected for this award because she displays the same “heart & mind” style leadership that Cindy defined.

She has over sixteen years of experience working directly with Alaskan children and families of diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, and seven years of experience leading teachers, caregivers, support staff, and para-professionals in both residential and traditional child care and early education settings. At the time of the award, she was the Director at Bright Horizons, where she had provided outstanding leadership since 2008.