By Jasmine Willis
DANSVILLE — It is rare when one can see the impact they leave behind in a small community years later, but for one preschool teacher that dream came true on a snowy night.
Ruth Dutting Witte, author of “Changing the World Through Children” has spent over two decades growing the minds of young children.
Growing Places started in the basement of her home in 1995. It took on a life of its own as a creative learning center about six years later once she got the building on 14 Battle Street. It was a very special building to so many young people. There were generations of these young people at the special book launch party at Dansville ArtWorks on Dec. 14. Students from the very first class to the very last class showed up to honor the teacher that continues to mean so much to them.
Many students agreed this book was several years in the making, and are interested to read what Ms. Ruth has to say about the time at Growing Places.
Serena Blackburn, a sophomore in college, has known Mrs. Witte for almost two decades. She had heard about this book being in the works her entire life.
“It will be very exciting to read. I am looking forward to it,” she said. “I want to work for a non-profit or do research on the relevance between education and how people’s environment can influence children. I want to change my small piece of the world.”
“Some of my first memories are at Growing Places. Going there I was a different kid when I was younger, about a foot taller, and didn’t talk the same as everyone else. Going into that preschool was a very good experience for me since everyone was really cool. We were all a little different, but we could all still run around in circles, and play with blocks, and put baby dolls in outfits all the same,” Blackburn continued. “All the activities we did growing up like going to my neighbor’s bird farm to show people nature, and doing 9,000 pumpkins every years, and staying in touch with Growing Places people all throughout high school. I would never have guessed at age three that this would be so influential in my life, but I am glad it all happened.”
Kyrie Gibson, a junior in Dansville Central, agreed that Mrs. Witte’s talked about the book with her students for a long time.
“I have known Mrs. Witte for most of my life. She is one of the most caring and loving people that I know. Growing Places has been my home for a long time, and even though it is gone now I will never forget it. Mrs. Witte gave me my best friend and some amazing experiences. I love you so much. I can’t wait to read your book.”
Ian Gibson, a freshman in Dansville Central, talked about the importance of Mrs. Witte’s class in his life.
“I was a student at Growing Places from the first week I was born until fourth grade. The bonds I made there at such a young age lasted years if not my entire life. I am pretty firm believer that we are not born with the personality that we have today,” he said. “That we develop it based on the way we were raised. This is why I am very glad my parents decided for me to go to Growing Places. In a world as controversial as it is today we need to make sure our next generation has a suitable environment in their upbringing. We need to quite literally change the world for our children.”
Witte said the best part of the book launch was seeing students from all different ages come.
“What I love is kids that are now in tenth, eleventh, and even college are coming back. They always came back for many years. I remember we had a big pumpkin contest every year they all wanted to be part of,” she said “How many preschool teachers can say they get to watch their students grow up? I am lucky that I have gotten to watch all my students grow up before my very eyes.”
Janice Jarvis, Growing Places board advisor, said Ruth made a huge impact on many lives in the community.
“When I was on the board we would come in every day and Ruth would let us pick out a charm. I would pick one out of the basket every day. They all had a word on them that inspired us to work on that each day,” she said. “I don’t think she knows how much it always meant to me. They still inspire me every single day. This bracelet has literally changed my life.”
Witte added that Growing Places has taught students how to grow in creativity and inspired them to become anything from scientists, teachers, engineers, artists, doctors and musicians.
Witte put together a book of students quotes in 2012 called “Mother Earth and Her Season” by The Growing Places Kids. It was handed out as a gift to students along with a button and magnet.
“I have always thought I had three books in me. I started working on this one (Changing the World Through Children) years ago,” she said. “I had collected everything I needed to write the book over the years. This book turned out to be very hard to write. I started writing it in the start of this year, and got it published in October.”
“Growing Places was always meant to last forever. I always figured it would be around for 200 years, and become some historic landmark someday. I still feel like someday it will, since I’ll buy it back. We still need to work on changing the world,” Witte mentioned.
Annabelle Reynolds, a third grader in Dansville Central, came with a famously made peace necklace from Growing Places.
Witte said the students all took turns making clay beads for one another, and ensembled a necklace called the “Peace Necklace” as a gift for one another. This is a necklace made by friends.
“You will always be my kids. Once these kids come into my life, they remain my kids forever,” Witte said. “I am close to tears. I hope I can remember all the details of this special day.”
Lindsay Mehlenbacher, said she had been going to Growing Places since she was six weeks old. She is now a junior in college. Frog and Toad was the first signed book she got from Mrs. Witte that still brings tears to her eyes. Now she has the book written by one of her favorite teachers.
Kay Thomas, an old friend and fellow author, said she started a two-person writing group with Witte when she was a young mom. They both worked together writing columns for
Genesee Country Express in the early 2000s.
“She was here for me when I had written my first book, so I wanted to be here for her,” Thomas said. “We started writing together many years ago when Ruth’s sons were little boys. She started writing Going Places and I wrote One More Thing for The Express. Today is the most amazing day ever for Ruth.”
Susan DeMuth, an old friend and neighbor, said she recalls the time Witte had the preschool in her basement. Her son, William, was one of her first students long ago.
“My son, William, grew up with Ruth’s twin sons. I have known Ruth since before she started the preschool. I was one of the first on her advisory board when she started long ago. I remember we always did lots of fun crafts,” DeMuth said. “Will played with her sons before Growing Places even existed. I got to see it go from one transition to another over the years. It was really amazing to watch. I really loved seeing the garden come to life and the brick path leading to it.”
Greg Maltby said he was one of the first students at the Growing Places.
“I remember all of the arts and crafts we did at Growing Places. We always did something with nature as well. I grew up with her sons and it was really a neighborhood relationship we all created. I went to college and now I do pet sitting for local farmers. I take care of horses, dogs, cats, birds, and other animals,” he said. “I would see Ruth at times around town and knew she always wanted to work on this book. I heard she would find more time to focus on it once she moved to Vermont.”
“It is interesting what you don’t pay attention to as a kid, but once you are an adult it is wonderful to connect with your teachers on that level,” Maltby continued. “Now I will read through her book and learn more from what she was trying to teach us. It is amazing what you learn from those who came before you once you are old enough to pay attention.”
Witte said she is happy so many of her past students showed up for the launch party, and hopes everyone keeps doing their part in changing the world.
“Changing the World Through Children” by Ruth Dutting Witte is available on Amazon.