This article appeared in the Winter 2012–13 issue of Erikson on Children under the headline “Leading an Army for children and families.”
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The numbers are stark: More than a third of Chicago children live in poverty, and many more families are struggling. An Erikson alumnus is helping these children and families receive the help they need.

“The issues parents face are greater than ever,” says Leon Denton, M.Ed. ’88, the director of children and youth services at the Salvation Army Metropolitan Division. “They need quality child care and education but are struggling with the effects of a bad economy and social isolation, peer pressure, teen pregnancy, teen suicide, gangs, crime, and other issues.”

During his 25 years at the Salvation Army, Denton has helped create a “one-stop shop” of support for families in the Chicago area. Each year, some 50 expectant mothers and 330 children beginning at six-weeks-old come to the Salvation Army for services ranging from parenting classes to afterschool care.

“There’s not one aspect of child care that we don’t touch on or work with,” he says. “If a family is hungry, needs shelter, or is looking for good child care, we can help.”

Under Denton’s leadership, the Salvation Army launched innovative programs including the first Head Start program in the Chicago Park District, a Head Start program for homeless families, and, beginning in 2013, the only Head Start program in Chicago serving pregnant high school students.

Denton also counts among his proudest accomplishments earning NAEYC accreditation for almost all of the Salvation Army’s child care sites, quadrupling the number of children served at the sites, and working with a variety of government programs and private funders to support the programs families need.

Denton can often be found at one of the many child care sites and programs he oversees, talking with parents, children, and members of his 80-person staff. The conversations help deepen his understanding of the struggles families face and remind him why he chose the early childhood field.

“Even after all these years, I still feel such a reward when I see children’s smiles and work with them and their families,” he says. “Even better is to receive a call years later from a former client, inviting me to her college graduation or telling me about making the honor roll. I am blessed that so many families return to the Salvation Army to share these accomplishments with us.”

A leader in the field

In addition to his work at the Salvation Army, Denton is a volunteer leader on the local and national levels. He has served on the board of directors for The National Black Child Development Institute, The Partnership of Quality Child Care, Illinois Action for Children, Kennedy-King College, and Luster Learning Institute, which trains teachers to support their students’ social and emotional learning.

“Just mention children and I’ll help,” says Denton.

From father to Erikson graduate

Growing up, it never occurred to Denton that he would enjoy working with young children. He set out to be a medical doctor, earning an undergraduate degree in biology and minors in math and chemistry from Mississippi Valley State.

Back in Chicago and between jobs, Denton took his daughter to a Head Start program every morning and would often talk and play with the other children. Denton had such a rapport with the children, the director of the child care center soon offered Denton a part-time job.

From then on, he was hooked on early childhood. Denton took all the early childhood courses at Kennedy-King College before looking toward graduate school.

“I knew that I wanted to go to one of the best graduate schools for early childhood,” says Denton. “When I asked my Kennedy-King professors for their advice, everyone said Erikson. They spoke so highly of it.”

Denton admits that he was scared at first of Erikson’s reputation. “I didn’t think I could compete,” he says. A conversation with Professor Barbara T. Bowman soon calmed his nerves, and he began his master’s program and a new job as a teacher.

But as he approached the end of his studies, Bowman had a new challenge for him: Change careers yet again.

“Barbara pushed me toward administration. She wanted me to be where I could affect greater numbers of children,” Denton says. Bowman and Professor Joan McLane recommended the Salvation Army for a practicum in administration. It led to a full-time job for Denton and a career in the Army.

“When Barbara and Joan talked to me about the Salvation Army, I didn’t even know that it had child care programs, but it ended up being the perfect fit for me — emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. I am doing what I truly enjoy, and I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.”