Columbia College alumnae turns things around for Harrisburg, Mo., early learning center.

By Irene Haskins
Published in the Columbia Daily Tribune Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Early last year, after being approached by the preschool's previous director, Kerri McBee Black took over as board president of the Harrisburg Early Learning Center, filling a position that had been vacant for quite some time. As usual, when she decides to do something, Kerri wasted no time getting down to business.

(Editor's note: Kerri attended Columbia College from 1989 to 1993, graduating with a bachelor's of fine arts degree. She has since been a driving force for the college in numerous leadership roles, including as the alumni association's current president and as a member of the college's forward-looking Visioning Committee. She is also currently drafting a new mission statement.)

Her first task was to get a new classroom built for the preschool program because the present classroom was crowded and the space would not accommodate an optimum learning environment for the 3- to 5-year-old students. Facing financial constraints, however, the $150,000 estimate was not within its budget.

“We needed someone with great organizational skills to come in and get things turned around.”

As an alternative, Kerri requested the services of her father, Larry McBee, a retired small-business owner with extensive experience in construction and remodeling, to serve as general contractor. His willingness to do much of the work himself saved the center more than $60,000.

In August, a grand opening was held for the newly constructed, 1,400-square-foot classroom of the not-for-profit Harrisburg Early Learning Center, which has been serving generations of northern Boone County residents since 1980.

Meeting the challenge

Board member and co-President Leeann Davenport, senior grants administrator at MU, says the board really needed the position filled. "The organization was struggling to meet demands set on it by United Way and needed someone with great organizational skills to come in and get things turned around. She had a rough period when the director of the preschool resigned after 25 years. Kerri began taking care of the day-to-day operations of the preschool, going above and beyond her duties as a volunteer president. She was never compensated for any of this time and never complained when the staff would call her with questions. This was a difficult period for parents and staff, and Kerri did great with both."

Kerri, 37, was born in Jefferson City and moved to Harrisburg at the age of 4. She attended school in Harrisburg, then enrolled at Columbia College, working toward a degree in fashion design. She went to Atlanta as an intern for Carter Co., manufacturers of children’s sleepwear, where she was an assistant designer for six months. After graduation, she returned as assistant merchandiser for two years.

She returned to attend grad school at MU for a degree in textile and apparel management, then went to work for the only apparel manufacturer in Columbia, Past Sporting Goods, as production manager. In 1997, Kerri served as a fundraising assistant and later as community affairs director for Planned Parenthood, leaving that organization in 2004.

The daughter of Larry and Laura McBee, Kerri is married to Greg Black, and they have one son, Tucker, age 5. She has two brothers, Larry and Kevin McBee, and a sister, Laurie McBee, all of whom live in the area. Kerri runs a statewide not-for-profit organization out of her home called Alliance for the Status of Missouri Women providing timely analysis of key social and economic issues focusing on the state level. She also works with the General Assembly on how their policies affect women.

Political junkie

An activist and volunteer on many fronts, in 2004, Kerri was appointed by Gov. Bob Holden to serve on the Women’s Council looking at how business affects women. She admits to being a political junkie, following "politics and elections carefully," and has worked on several campaigns. Kerri herself ran for state representative from the 23rd District in 2002. In addition to her duties as board president of HELC, she is board president for the Columbia College Alumni Association and also serves on the Boone County Health Board.

Kerri balances her busy life living on "a little bit of acreage, raising chickens and selling eggs. All my free time is spent with Tucker. I read a lot and love to sew but don’t have time to do it anymore." The family winds down with an annual vacation at their time-share on Tybee Island off the coast of Savannah, Ga.

"Kerri had to learn the ins and outs of child care in a very short period of time and has done an amazing job," Leeann Davenport said. "We have a waiting list for school-age care, and the new classroom means we can accommodate 40 more children than we could before. The expansion is a huge thing for our center, and Kerri is the one who made it happen. Without her, the preschool would still be struggling. With her on board, we will be the best preschool in Boone County!"

"Our facilities are amazing for such a small community," Kerri said, "but we always need help. I would especially like to encourage retired people to come and read to the kids. They’d both love it.

"Sometimes I have to be reminded to take time to stay home. If I was wealthy, I’d donate money, but I’m not, so I donate my time."

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