Gov. Kelly tours B.E. Smith Family Center in Merriam, which stayed open through pandemic

Gov. Laura Kelly (right) toured the B.E. Smith Family Center on the AdventHealth Shawnee Mission campus on Tuesday as part of her 'Back to Work, Back to School' tour. Above, Amy Milroy (left) director of Britain Development at the center, led the tour. Milroy is wearing a mask with a plexiglass cutout so her lips are visible to children trying to learn to form words.

Children at play, exercising their small muscles, playing musical instruments, learning colors through sensory play, snuggling up to parents.

That’s how Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly found many of the toddlers and babies at the B.E. Smith Family Center on the AdventHealth Shawnee Mission campus in Merriam on Tuesday afternoon: happy, playful and full of smiles.

“When you think about where I work on a day-in, day-out basis, you can trust me, this is a lot of fun,” Kelly said. “It’s very reaffirming. It reminds me of why I do what I do every day.”

The governor toured the B.E. Smith Family Center Tuesday as part of her “Back to Work, Back to School” tour, which is focused on health care this week.

Kelly also met a few parents and staff members at the center; some of them wore special masks that had a plexiglass cutout over their mouths to help children read lips and learn to form words.

Jordan Garcia, 5, gives Gov. Kelly a drawing he made.

Many children introduced themselves, and some gave drawings as gifts to the governor.

For Kelly, who started her career working with children with disabilities in recreational therapy, the tour was impressive.

“It’s also very indicative of the generosity of the folks in this particular area,” Kelly said. “I want to thank all of them for what they’ve done to make a tremendous contribution to the community and specifically to these kids and to their families.”

Child care was a critical part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as essential workers and working families needed a safe place to take their children when working from home was not an option.

The B.E. Smith Family Center’s Early Learning program — considered the largest child care center in Kansas, serving more than 600 children — stayed operational throughout the pandemic and received $16,000 in state grants through the Hero Relief Program last year to support salaries and additional cleaning equipment.

Tuesday’s visit was a first for the governor since the center was torn down and rebuilt in 2018 from its nearby location on the AdventHealth Shawnee Mission campus.

The new $24 million facility opened in April 2019 at 7415 Grandview St. in Merriam and houses both the Lee Ann Britain Infant Development Center and the AdventHealth Shawnee Mission Early Learning Center.

Likewise, Britain Development serves more than 350 families in the greater Kansas City metro area. Britain Development features two aquatic therapy pools, music therapy rooms, and a dedicated learning environment for children with autistic disorders.