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story.lead_photo.caption Jessica Richardson is the new executive director of Conway Cradle Care, a nonprofit organization housed in First Presbyterian Church, next door to Conway High School. The center provides child care and mentoring for adolescent parents in Faulkner and Perry counties and college-age parents up to age 21, as well as the community. The program provides classes on parenting, budgeting and more for expectant parents. - Photo by Staci Vandagriff

Jessica Richardson had no qualms about taking the position as executive director of Conway Cradle Care, even though she’s just 28, and it’s her first professional job.

“If you are passionate about something and you want to dedicate yourself to it, you can definitely do it,” she said.

Richardson said that’s what she learned from her parents when she was growing up in Jonesboro. Her father, Herschel Richardson, is a pastor and former nurse; her mother, Letha Richardson, is a mental-health counselor and former social worker.

“I always knew I had a passion for people, and I always wanted to help in any way possible,” Jessica Richardson said.

She earned a degree in sociology from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. Richardson said she started out to get a degree in Spanish until she found out it required travel abroad, which didn’t appeal to her then.

She earned a master’s degree in mental health from Grand Canyon University, an online Christian university. She’s close to completing a Master of Business Administration degree from the same institution.

A self-described people-person, Richardson thought she’d eventually follow in her mother’s footsteps.

“I decided that instead of just helping people, I wanted to go into business where I could help them hands-on,” she said.

Richardson, who has a 6-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son, was a stay-at-home mother for a while and worked at a sandwich shop. She moved to Conway about three months ago to join her parents, who moved to Conway about a year ago when her father became the senior pastor of Grace United Methodist Church. Jessica said she grew up singing in church with her sister and mother.

When Richardson heard about the opening at Conway Cradle Care, she loved the mission — helping adolescent parents and expectant parents, as well as college-age parents up to age 21, and community members.

“For me, it was just mind-blowing,” she said. “I’ve never been a teen mom, but I have gone to school, and [when a teenager gets pregnant], people are like, ‘That’s it for you — life is over.’”

And she said that’s just not the case.

Conway Cradle Care is a nonprofit program housed at First Presbyterian Church, 2400 Prince St., next door to Conway High School. Originally a mission of the church, Conway Cradle Care became an independent nonprofit.

The program offers child care for public-school students in Faulkner and Perry counties. In addition to parenting and required mentoring classes, students are encouraged to take classes offered on topics such as cooking and budgeting.

“It’s important they have those life skills as well,” Richardson said.

Richardson, who started her job Aug. 1, said students in the program have had a 100 percent graduation rate the past two years.

As of last week, there are 16 children, birth to age

36 months, in the program. Three more are on the way from teen mothers who will give birth in a few months, she said.

“One of the stipulations while [the students] are in the program is they cannot get pregnant again,” Richardson said.

However, she emphasized that teen parents aren’t judged or chastised.

“I think that’s important for teen moms to see: ‘We’re on your side,’” she said.

Nicolle Fletcher, the organization’s new mentor coordinator, said Richardson excels in connecting with young parents.

She said Richardson is short, energetic and looks young enough to be a student. Fletcher said she saw a young black mother ask Richardson, ‘Are you a teacher? Are you a mom?’ [Richardson] said, ‘I’m the executive director.’ The student’s eyes just lit up. I felt like she saw hope in her future self … a future for her doing big things.’”

Fletcher said she thinks Richardson will take the program “to the next level.”

The 4-foot-11-inch Richardson said she has “very big shoes to fill,” replacing Kelsey Weaver, the former executive director, who is moving out of state.

“Kelsey has done such a great job, such a great job,” Richardson said.

Richardson said the executive-director job was split into two, into hers and child-care program director, a position held by Ashley Harper.

Amy Jordan, president of the Cradle Care Board of Directors and principal of Bob and Betty Courtway Middle School, said Richardson’s educational background will work well with the new approach. She pointed to Richardson’s master’s degree in mental health and upcoming master’s in business administration.

By splitting the duties, Jordan said, “Jessica will be able to focus on fundraising and growth of our nonprofit. It is our hope that Jessica and the Cradle Care team will maintain the success and programming that is in place and continue growth of the nonprofit by offering services to additional surrounding-area school districts. Jessica’s knowledge of financial management, comfortability in connecting with others and desire to support young parents will be a great fit for the demands of the executive director’s role and program goals.”

One of Richardson’s goals is to expand Conway Cradle Care to other counties to help more teen parents.

Richardson said she’s enjoying getting to know the parents and watching them interact with their children. She’s impressed, so far, with them and the program.

She will spend a lot of her time writing grants and creating budgets, she said, as well as being available to the parents and staff.

”I like to believe I’m not going to ask anybody to do anything I’m not going to do myself,” she said.

Richardson, who is fluent in Spanish, said she would love to eventually start her own business, “combining my passions,” she said. The business would help Hispanic children with mental-health services.

“I could break that language barrier to find out what they need,” she said. “I’ve always been passionate about helping as many people as possible, and I thought that was another demographic I could reach. A lot of times, they need the help, but they can’t get it or can’t afford it.

“I’m going to pick up another language. I’m thinking about learning Swahili — [Conway has] some international students — or maybe French; I’m not sure.”

Richardson said that for now, she is focused on her new job, raising her children and working to finish her second master’s degree.

She’s able to balance it all because her parents taught her “determination, hard work, perseverance and time management, of course,” she said, laughing. “I’m looking forward to empowering expectant parents and college students … and working with these beautiful babies.”

Richardson described herself as a mother. “I like to guide my children. I like to lead by example,” she said, just like her parents.

“That was important for [me and] my sister and brother to see growing up, she said, seeing [our parents] achieve their dreams and making things happen, and that’s what I want to do for my children.”

And that’s what she wants to do through Conway Cradle Care, too.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-5671 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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