As the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on our community,  some very special people stepped up to become “good heroes” to those who needed help. Bonnie Eskell was one of those people. As the early-learning inclusion coordinator at Children First, she became known as a beacon of light for the children, families and staff.  Bonnie, a mother of three daughters, each born with challenges, began her career at the age of 20, learning and working at SFCC (now South Florida State College). When she realized that she needed childcare to continue her college education, she changed her major from psychology to child care center management. “When I saw how desperately the day-care staff needed help,” she says. “I remember saying…I could do this better! I could make this better, and so I did!” 

After graduating from SFCC, Bonnie began her lifelong career of working with children. First, she became the assistant director at the childcare center her daughter attended. Later, she went back to online college when her medically-fragile little girl was diagnosed with asthma. From there, she went to work with Highlands infant program (high school parents with infants) in Sebring, Fl, to the YMCA children services group in Sarasota as the center specialist, overseeing quality enhancement and helping with everything from mini grants to modeling in the classroom. Shortly after giving birth to another daughter in 2004 (also medically fragile with many special needs), she went to Pines of Sarasota where she worked for 13 years as a lead teacher. Finally, after receiving a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary social science, she became an early childhood development specialist (ECDS) at Children First, where she remains today. 

“I came aboard Children First in 2017 when I saw that they needed a child development specialist. As I was nearly out of college at USF, my education and my background gave me some special insight on how to work with adults as well as children  and the ECDS position is actually more of a site director/supervisory role,” she says. “While I enjoyed my time supporting and supervising some phenomenal folks there, my passion was with the children with special needs so at the end of 2021, I applied for the inclusion coordinator position and got it.”

With very little warning, the organization shut down for the pandemic. During the days and weeks that followed a phone tree was started. It was Bonnie’s job to call every staff member at least three times a week for check-ins. She would fill out a spreadsheet after each call, noting how the staff was coping and if there was anything they needed. She helped them to set up Zoom as they went forth virtually to deliver services to their families. At the same time, she was working on her masters degree in psychology with a focus on child development from Capella University. When the group came back on campus, Bonnie was the only consistently onsite supervisor. Together with her colleagues, she ordered safe things for the classroom that wouldn’t hold the virus and helped set up safety protocols for students and staff. 

“We set up one infant room and one preschool room to start the pilot of moving children back on site. Every morning, I would arrive by 7 am to help set up. I spent the majority of the day running as parents weren’t allowed in the building. We had to have a staff member greet, ask questions, take temperatures and tote the children into the building,” she says. “We had a team of runners, who were absolutely priceless, and at the same time I had to do the ECDS job of scheduling, working on payroll and continuing to support by checking in with every staff member.”

Her work during that time was not without challenges as the protocols to keep children and adults safe were extensive and not without criticism from families. However, after the staff began getting the routine down and giving support to the families, most of them came to appreciate the importance of the work the team did to help them. Bonnie remembers when one particular child who did not like hand sanitizer actually became the line leader to be first to get the “tizer” before going into the building. 

“After learning that it was the smell that offended the child, and not any other reasons, I showed her that sanitizer comes in a variety of scents–orange, peppermint, and even soap scent.” Bonnie shares. “There were often younger children dropped off at the same time, so we had her show a “baby” how to use the sanitizer. Giving the child the active productive role in the team was what made the difference. She then seemed to be empowered as the boss of the hand sanitizer. She even would report if it was running low or didn’t put out enough!”

For her efforts during that time, the regional manager and her region A-Team gave Bonnie a kindness award. “I cherish the wooden flower sign they all signed, and I really am grateful to all of those ladies!” she shares. “I was striving to be a light–I was a candle in a big candelabra of partners providing services despite the darkness of the time and I spent the majority of my time trying to keep other people lit.” 

While her career is always of utmost importance, Bonnie considers her job as a mom to be number one. “I am a mom to three amazing young women with only one left in high school,” she says proudly. “I am also Mimi to two awesome little girls and wife to my sweetheart, David Eskell.”

The youngest of eight children born and raised in central Florida, Bonnie shares that she was blessed with a mom who defined faith and perseverance. Born in Wauchula Fl, Bonnie, a premature baby herself, was not expected to live long. “My mom passed away in 2019 but she taught me that it’s what you do for others that counts, not what you say or intend. Even just smiling is an act of kindness and it’s a choice to bring that face to others.”

Bonnie credits her mom, her faith in Jesus, her work family, being a preemie that overcame and having daughters with special needs who are thriving for her philosophy to never put limits on children. “Even when there are hard things happening, belonging with a loving, appreciative and accepting group makes all the difference. I choose to belong with the people I am with and help them to feel that they belong. Belonging inspires me,” she says. 

And while the difficulties of the pandemic seem to be behind us, Bonnie has not stepped away from helping others. During Hurricane Ian, she opened her home to a friend and colleague along with her family and pets (including two cats, a hedgehog, dog, turtle, and 210lb minipig) for just over seven weeks while her home was flooded. 

For those just starting out in their educational careers, Bonnie says “Just do it! Begin each day with motivation for yourself. If you say it is a great day, it is. Get educated as much as you can but remember education is not the same as experience. Communication with fellow educators is key to understanding. Take what you can from the experienced but make your own choices. You can make a difference.”  SRQ   Bonnie Eskell was honored as one of SRQ Magazine’s Good Heroes in December 2021.