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Above: Brenda Lyle (right), founder and executive director of the Family Learning Center, shares a laugh with cook Margarita Fernandez as they discuss the day’s nutrition plans for the children. (Photo by Emma Smith)

Heart and Soul

By Tanya Ishikawa

Brenda Lyle has been caring for children since she was a child herself. At 13, as the oldest of six, she was already helping raise her siblings while their parents worked full-time. That year, she also rescued a baby from a drug addict’s inadequate mothering.

“Some people bring home stray dogs; I brought home stray babies,” says Lyle, who founded Boulder’s nonprofit Family Learning Center and has run it for 34 years. After three weeks, her mother persuaded her to find another home for that baby.

Two preschoolers spend some free time playing with dinosaurs. (Photo by Emma Smith)
Two preschoolers spend some free time playing with dinosaurs. (Photo by Emma Smith)

Though Lyle was born and raised in a multicultural neighborhood in San Diego, she lived in the projects in Los Angeles as a teen.“Life was totally different—the neighborhoods were extremely segregated. The only white people I saw were the grocery and liquor-store owners, the business owners and some teachers,”Lyle recalls.

Her dream was to fall in love and get pregnant. She had a learning disability unrecognized by teachers, and expressed her frustration by acting out, ending up in detention every day. In ninth grade, her vice principal took notice and became her mentor.

She joined the half of her class that was integrated into an all-white high school, getting involved in everything and becoming the first black person to run for student government. After graduation, she majored in history and political science at a black junior college, Los Angeles Southwest College. “I took a lot of black-history classes that I found really empowering,” she says, “and it was right in the middle of the Black Student Movement and the Black Panthers.” She transferred to Brigham Young University in Utah, where she met and married her husband before finishing her degree. Soon, they adopted a half African-American, half white son, and moved to Boulder when her husband got a job at IBM.

How the FLC Started

“Boulder in the ’70s was really different. My neighbors were nudists, so their 7- and 8-year-old kids ran around naked,” Lyle remembers. “It was a very small town, much more friendly, much more spiritual and way more affordable.” The Lyles’ first home was in the San Juan del Centro low-income housing project, near Valmont Road and 34th Street. She describes herself then as a “socially aware stay-at-home mom really involved with community-justice issues” who was bothered that the young children of her neighbors—mainly Asian refugees—weren’t in school. Unable to speak or read English adequately or to fill out the English forms to stay in school, the children were sent home.

Preschool director Romana Thomas uses both technology and creativity to educate her students. (photo by Emma Smith)
Preschool director Romana Thomas uses both technology and creativity to educate her students. (photo by Emma Smith)

“There’s something morally wrong with kids’ failing in kindergarten,” she says. So, in 1981, she started a preschool co-op three mornings a week in a local church. On the first morning, she arrived to find a long line of parents backed up four blocks, waiting to get their kids in the little preschool. “That was profound to me, that parents cared that much. I learned that all families want to create better opportunities for their children. That is a motivation not owned by one race or economic group.”

Using income from a job cleaning offices at night and with a $2,500 donation from local businessman Joe Sanchez, Lyle operated the school, assisted by a friend and one employee. The Family Learning Center (FLC) grew, adding program after program to help students of all ages and their families achieve upward mobility. “We are really a child-centered program, but in the context of the family and parents,” she explains. “When you make the family strong, you not only help that child; you help cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. I find it the most effective, empowering way to help the most people.”

Today, the center provides services to 1,800 people a year, with the help of 215 volunteers and eight employees, working with a $1-million budget. Lyle also runs a nonprofit educational and management consulting company with projects in Mexico, South America and the United States.

‘Doing Whatever It Takes’

Lyle’s colleague George Crochet served alongside her in the Boulder Chamber and formed Boulder’s Minority Issues Coalition with her in 1991, to help address various racism-related crises throughout the community. He calls Lyle “the heart and soul of the learning center, doing whatever it takes for that family to basically thrive, survive and achieve at a higher level than otherwise.” While always focusing on her own family, which now includes four adult children and five grandchildren, Lyle has also participated on the Rocky Mountain Adoption Exchange Board, several school-district programs, the Women’s Foundation of Colorado, a number of housing coalitions and many Democratic Party campaigns.

Lyle (left) with business manager Mary Schmidt at the 20th-annual Penfield Tate Humanitarian Awards Dinner and Auction, the center’s major fundraising event. (photo courtesy Family Learning Center)
Lyle (left) with business manager Mary Schmidt at the 20th-annual Penfield Tate Humanitarian Awards Dinner and Auction, the center’s major fundraising event. (photo courtesy Family Learning Center)

Boulder realtor Ann Cooper, a parent of a former FLC student, describes Lyle as “raw—in a positive way” and lacking “political correctness. But if you want a good experience for your kids that they won’t have anywhere else in Boulder, education-wise, cultural-wise, spiritual-wise, she can provide it.” Cooper’s biracial daughter, Jasmine, was a good student but felt unsatisfied in high school, so she took FLC’s after-school programs, tutored other students, and went on to graduate from Northeastern University in Boston. She is now a data analyst in New Jersey.

“The learning center’s mixture of ethnically and economically diverse children is hard to find in Boulder, and it gave Jasmine a flavor for how it is in the real world,” Cooper says. “It was important in her growth and development as a person, and gave her a sense of belonging.”

Stories like hers are common. In fact, of the 72 high school seniors who participated in FLC programs in May 2014, 100 percent graduated and 70 percent were accepted into college.

Lyle and the Family Learning Center have always had the mission of helping whole families achieve growth and success. (photo courtesy Family Learning Center)
Lyle and the Family Learning Center have always had the mission of helping whole families achieve growth and success. (photo courtesy Family Learning Center)

Robert Jaquez attended FLC programs year-round from the ages of 4 to 18, and now studies business at a college in Norway. “The center gave us something to do, so we weren’t just hanging out all day,” he says, adding that Lyle singlehandedly kept him on the path to college when he wanted to take a break. “She is a really caring person, but she can be pretty strict when she needs to be. She’s in tune with what different kinds of kids are trying to achieve.”

As much as they admire her, Lyle is just as proud of the FLC children and families, and finds great satisfaction in chance meetings with successful alumni at their jobs. “When I am able to walk through my community and see the impact of the kids as they make a difference in their own ways, I am really hopeful,” she says.

“As a community with many millionaires and the highest ratio of Ph.D.s per capita, people who are into health and the environment, surely we have the ingredients to become an inclusive community who care about each other. We haven’t been able to achieve those goals to the extent that I would like, but we have definitely been able to help kids feel good about themselves, create senses of cultural identity, and understand that a part of being a happy, productive human being is giving back.”


 

Tanya Ishikawa, a CU Boulder graduate, is a freelance writer who regularly writes about human rights, education, politics and the arts for Brock Media publications.


About the Family Learning Center

(photo by Emma Smith)
(photo by Emma Smith)

The Family Learning Center (303-442-8979) is located at 3164 34th St., Boulder 80301. It offers affordable programs for children aged 3-18, as well as family education and adult literacy programs. According to evaluations by the Boulder Valley School District and the Colorado State Department of Education, the FLC’s programs rank among the best in Colorado, ranging from full-time child care for youngsters to after-school SAT tutoring for teenagers. Parents and guardians are included too. They can take GED, ESL and career-development courses through the FLC while benefiting from donated food, clothing and household items.

But the FLC doesn’t just focus on education. Nutrition, technological aptitude, social confidence, emotional wellness and language development are all integral parts of its mission. Check out www.flcboulder.org for further information.

— Emma Smith