A Tribute to Ellen McKinley

Founder and President Emeritus of CDEA, Child Development Education Alliance
By Julie Hendry, Executive Director

I met Ellen in 1994, at an Early Educators Conference in Orlando, Florida. She was setting up her overhead projector and asked me if I could move the extension cord near her cart so people wouldn’t trip over it as they walked into the Church Sanctuary. It was a day that changed my life forever.

Many say that we meet people who leave an everlasting impression on our hearts. Ellen McKinley was one such lady. Her devotion to young children and early educators was evident by her compassion and willingness to advocate for the rights of Christian Providers and Programs. I love telling people how Ellen wrapped her arms around my shoulder and invited me to the join her in the journey. CDEA became a familiar organization to me, and one that was leading the charge for Faith-Based Programs across the state to have a seat at the Legislative Table.

During the early 2000’s, our state was undergoing changes that allowed parents the opportunity to have free preschool for four-year old’s. I had been invited to be a part of the transition team representing our Faith-based Providers across Florida. Ellen and I would meet around the state and work with other Faith-Based Leaders to ensure the rights for their preschools. I remember the day the Bill passed, and Florida was now a state that would provide free preschool to four-year olds. Ellen called and said our work was just beginning! She was right!

Life with Ellen became an EPIC Journey. Our many road trips around the state included meetings, drafting positional statements and working with legislatures to ensure the rights of Faith-Based Programs.

It was quite the adventure, especially the trips to Tallahassee! You have never really lived unless you attended a legislative meeting with my fiery, passionate friend and mentor. Ellen always walked in with confidence and courage. Her faith in Christ fueled her steps and advocacy for Christian Educators. Her smile  would light up a room and her words would stir the hearts of all who listened. I watched and learned in awe of this amazing Champion for Children. She was truly a “David” in a world of Goliaths!

Ellen went on to rally for the rights to have a Christian Curriculum on the States approval list. She immediately worked to get The WEE Learn Curriculum approved and then set up state approved training so providers all across Florida would have access to WEE Learn. Before long, we were providing training all across the state! She trained me to be her WEE Learn Train the Trainer, and we soon had several trainers working with CDEA to help equip Early Educators all over Florida. This endeavor expanded to include online training, as well as face to face trainings.

Ellen didn’t stop there! She also was instrumental in getting CDEA to be an approved agency for Providers to obtain their Professional Credentials. Working with state agencies and organizations, Ellen lead CDEA to become a leader in online professional training, including staff credentials and renewals. Her vision was to equip and enable Faith-based Providers to have access to high quality training and support. She secured an amazing team of dedicated staff who work with hundreds of early educators. A partnership with T.E.A.C.H. helped CDEA members obtain credentials and renewals.

In addition, Ellen had two very special events that were near and dear to her heart. One was the “Annual CDEA Conference”, a two-day event with amazing presenters, vendors, music, and opportunities for professional development. This Conference was held annually in the Jacksonville area. Ellen also developed an annual “Gifts of Service” Gala to honor area Preschools and Providers for outstanding contributions to children and families. Ellen brought together state leaders, legislative members, Early Learning Coalition Executive Directors, Community Leaders and members of many State Agencies for an evening of celebrating outstanding Early Educators and Programs.

I love that Ellen taught me the social graces of setting a table and inviting quest to come and have a conversation about the most sacred resource we have, the children. Her example of commitment, devotion and advocacy have let an imprint in my heart.

CDEA is blessed to have had a founder who was a true warrior for the children. Her legacy continues to fuel our future plans and prayers as we seek to continue the work she started.

At our recent Annual Conference, we were blessed to have Ellen join us and laugh with us as we celebrated 26 years of this beloved event. It was truly a joy to see her eyes sparkle as we reunited with old friends and made many new ones. That was the last time I saw her and hugged her. I am so thankful for the picture that was taken of Ellen and I and our dear friend and colleague, Dr. Phyllis Kalifeh. It was the last picture of us together, and it is burned in my heart. Standing next to this amazing lady was truly humbling and honoring. I will deeply miss her infectious smile and passionate spirit.

I think of these verses found in scripture that best describes my dear friend and mentor, Ellen McKinley.

 “I give thanks to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength for my work. I thank Him for considering me worthy and appointing me to serve Him.”                (1 Timothy 1:12)

“So then, my dear friends, stand firm and steady. Keep busy always in your work for the Lord, since you know that nothing you do in the Lord’s service is ever useless.” (1 Corinthians 15:58)

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as though you were working for the Lord and not for people. Remember that the Lord will give you as a reward what he has kept for his people. For Christ is the real Master you serve.” (Colossians 3:23-24)

“So then, obey the commands that I have given you today; love the Lord your God and serve him with all your heart.” (Deuteronomy 11:13)

“Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Deuteronomy 7:9)

Please pray with us and for us as we continue the path of serving children and equipping early educators.  Under the Leadership of our President, Donna Thornton-Roberts, our goal is growing CDEA into a National Organization as we follow the legacy of our Founder, Ellen McKinley!

Serving Together,


PS The Picture of the African Violet is a reminder of another life lesson I learned from Ellen. If you ever were privileged to visit her home, you would have walked inside to be greeted by her “WALL” of African Violets. She must have had over 40. After the death of her beloved Gerald McKinley, she had a smaller home built and move in, with only 20 of her favorite flowers. I loved watching her water and feed them, puck off dead leaves and flower petals. Her hands were swift, but gentle. I watched her replace them on the living room windowsill, she would move each plant around to make sure it would receive the perfect amount of sunlight. What a powerful lesson for me. Devotion, care, tenderness, commitment, and discipline. These are the words that best describe by her life. A woman of prayer, always making sure those she loved where planted right in the fullness of the SON. Thank you, Ellen. Your valuable lessons remain in my heart and mind. And thank you Alan and Sheri for the gift of one of her African Violets. I love looking at it every day as a reminder to continue this race for Christ with excellence!