Our Stories

A Memorable Moment: VOCEL’s Founding Class Graduates

VOCEL Teachers Ms. Kinya and Mr. Jameel lead the class to the graduation ceremony venue.

Cheered on by friends and family, staff, supporters, and volunteers, our inaugural class of students marched into Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory Academy’s auditorium. Our eleven graduates, dressed in the most precious bright blue cap and gowns, happily celebrated the end of what seems like an era.

In the past two years, we have seen so much growth at VOCEL. Cognitively, children have made some pretty impressive gains. Closing our school year 94% of our students are on track with all developmental milestones. In a single year at VOCEL, children made more than 2 years of vocabulary growth. Knowing these numbers, the joy and pride that filled the room came with no surprise.

After Kelly Lambrinatos, Co-Founder and Executive Director of VOCEL, welcomed the guests and graduates, the VOCEL class gave a small presentation to their audience. Smiles, laughter, and even a few tears were seen throughout the crowd as voices sang, “I’ve learned more than I can say. Now it’s graduation day.”

Next, Jesse Ilhardt, VOCEL Co-Founder and Director of Program addressed our graduates, acknowledging how they have become curious explorers and sophisticated learners.

Ruth speaking
VOCEL Teacher Ms. Ruth presents diplomas and superlative awards to each student. VOCEL Teachers and Board Chair, Ms. Barbara Koren shook the hand of each graduate.

Finally, the time had arrived – the awarding of the preschool diplomas. Each child was called up and individually recognized. Graduates were presented with a diploma and all students received their own superlative award.

Reflecting on VOCEL’s accomplishments in the organization’s first few years, we are proud and excited to send our founding class off to the schools they have chosen to attend. Children have been accepted to high-ranking schools of all types across Chicago, including magnet, charter and private schools.

As we bid farewell, a favorite classroom phrase comes to mind: “From our hearts to your heart, we wish you well!”

Latrell and CJ
Two of the #VOCELkids relish their moment in the spotlight and smile for the camera.

Learning to love literature: a morning with Ms. Reidy

Anticipation builds as we head inside. Calming our bodies from outdoor play is nearly impossible as anticipation builds on the way to our next destination: the library! (While our classroom library is filled with some fantastic books, nothing beats the chance to visit the “Big Boys’ Library” and see a real librarian.)



Ms. Reidy, CJA’s volunteer librarian, greets us with a warm smile as we file in and excitedly take our seats. From there, Ms. Reidy reveals the books she’s hand-picked for us to read this week and begins to read as smiles spread across both students’ and teachers’ faces. After the stories are finished, questions are asked, songs are sung , and even the occasional bookmarks are handed out. Without a doubt, the most joyous part of each visit comes when Ms. Reidy hands the books to one of our teachers as a donation to the VOCEL classroom library!

Thank you Ms. Reidy for sharing your time and pouring your love for literature into the young minds of VOCEL.


10 minutes with… Skylar


Good afternoon, Skylar. I’m going to interview you, or ask you some questions, and I’ll write down your responses so we can put your ideas and picture on the VOCEL blog. First, can you tell me about your family? 

“Yeah..So…we went to get a cake.”

“My family is Mommy…and Ti Ti..and my brother Jeremiah…and Uncle Manuel. Uncle Manuel tickled me, he’s a tickle bug!”

What is your favorite part about coming to school at VOCEL? 

“Mommy and Brother bring me to school in their car! I like to eat cake and share it with all of my friends.”

What do you want to be when you grow up? 

“I grow bigger and bigger like my brother. I want to be a great sister with my brother and be taller than my brother!”

What do you like about living in Chicago?  

“When the police come and save the day.”

What is your favorite food?

“Some lemon…I can drink lemon. A bagel, and chips, and I like animal chips. And DONUTS!”

New year, new perspective

From Ms. Kinya, January 5, 2016:

I was prepared to reflect on some professional resolutions that would assist me in being a more effective educator and a better team member overall. While important, I realized last night, I was moved to reflect on Wesley* instead. (Wesley’s last day at VOCEL was Jan. 4 as his family relocated outside the state.)

Yesterday was his last day at VOCEL, and it was a vast contrast from his first day here. I can vividly remember him throwing classroom furniture, being verbally and physically aggressive to children and staff alike, and bolting down the hallway running away from teachers. I recall getting in my car feeling defeated and saying out loud: ‘I don’t know how to do this job.’

As Wesley’s challenging behavior persisted, so did our team’s commitment to persist: we researched, trouble-shooted and derived solutions and resources. We learned how to understand Wesley’s behavior, communicated effectively with his family, developed signals for teacher’s to tap in/out, discovered and anticipated the triggers for his anger and frustration, helped him identify and communicate his emotions, and ultimately, we learned his love language.

It was not just one of the aforementioned ideas, strategies or resources that helped Wesley develop into the loving, charming, classroom-rule-following kid that departed yesterday. It was the collective efforts, commitment, experiences and knowledge of the entire VOCEL team that contributed to Wesley’s overall growth and success. The shared trials and victories over this one child’s successes helped us bond as a team, by recognizing each other’s strengths and trusting each other to problem solve together.

It certainly armed us with the tools to effectively combat present day challenges that occur in the classroom. It also helped validate my purpose and decision to educate kids during the critical early years. Whatever my daily challenge is at VOCEL, I no longer have the sentiment I did on that first day. I take comfort and pride in knowing that I can, in fact, do this job because I never have to do it alone.

*Name changed to protect the identity of our VOCEL child.

10 Minutes With… Candrell (C.J.)


 Good morning, C.J. I’m going to interview you, or ask you some questions, and I’ll write down your responses so we can put your ideas and picture on the VOCEL blog. First, can you tell me about your family? 

“My family is Alana, Aiden, Jeremiah, Mama & one Nia. Actually two Nias. One time we was playing with Aubrey (C.J.’s baby niece).

What is your favorite part about coming to school at VOCEL? 

“I like to go to school with the new friends and Ms. Ruth and the older boys (middle school students in our co-location). I want to go to school with a lot of C.J.s at the next school.”

What do you want to be when you grow up? 

“I want to be a police officer. I want to be a fake police offer, not a real police officer because I don’t want to shoot anyone.”

What do you like about living in Chicago?  

“It has animals and trucks. And shark-dolphins. Shark-dolphins eat C.J.s. No, they eat teachers but not kids.”

What is your favorite food?

“Macaroni and cheese with hot sauce. It don’t you burn you though.”


10 minutes with… Daishaun

Daishaun series


Good morning, Daishaun. I’m going to interview you, or ask you some questions, and I’ll write down your responses so we can put your ideas and picture on the VOCEL blog. First, can you tell me about your family? 

“I love it when they pick me up from school, and they come to my birthday party every time. I like the houses where my different family lives. I eat at my family’s house. If my mom, Donisha, says I can eat candy, I can eat candy.”

What is your favorite part about coming to school at VOCEL? 

“I like to play with my best friends. I like to play football. People like to play football with me every time.” 

Tell me what you want to do when you grow up. 

“I want to be a military fighter in an airplane. Military fighters fly up high in the sky and can do anything they want.”

What is your favorite thing about living in Chicago?

“I like to go in Chicago with my family. I like to go everywhere, like Legoland.”

What is your favorite thing to eat? 

“Pancakes and bacon.”

Q&A: Meet one of VOCEL’s newest team members, Jamie Thomas



Tell us a bit about your background. Where’d you grow up, go to school, etc.

I grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in Elementary Education. I taught in Baltimore City for a couple of years before staying home with my daughter and starting in-home child care for teachers that I knew. This grew into a love for early childhood and now it’s my professional passion.

Tell us what brought you to the VOCEL Family and made you want to be a part of the team.

I have known Kelly and Jesse for several years. I had previously opened an early childhood program in Chicago and was eager to share my experiences with them as they worked to do the same. When I decided to leave my previous position and visited VOCEL, seeing the children explore and learn and meeting team members – it became really clear to me that I wanted to be a part of what is happening at VOCEL.

Tell us what your role is and what you do at VOCEL.

I am the Director of Strategy and Operations and on-site Assistant Director. I work to maintain our licensing and funding, assist in daily operations, and am very excited to help hone our plan for VOCEL’s growth to include a birth-3 year old program.

You’ve been at VOCEL for a few weeks now. What has been your favorite moment?

It is incredibly hard to pick just one favorite moment, but I really loved when the class invited us over to sample the fruit punch they made. They called us on the office phone and the kids and teachers invited us in unison. The kids were adorably excited.

What is your favorite part of the preschool day and why?

Personally greeting each child and their family members in the morning when they arrive! It is a great time to quickly connect with each one of them daily.

Join us in welcoming Ms. Jamie to the VOCEL Family! 

5 Things Friday: Year 1 in 5 Frames

The familiar saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words” rings true when it comes to VOCEL. Images capture the emotions and thoughts of young children in a way that words often can’t. We’ve handpicked the following five images to tell the story of VOCEL’s journey through the first year. Each image represents one of VOCEL’s 5 Channels, the handful of approaches we use most to develop children’s social, emotional and cognitive skills. 

Join us in celebrating our first year supporting children and families with these images featuring the #VOCELkids, the reasons we do what we do each day.


Constant Conversations 



Supportive Relationships 



Shared Curiosity & Discovery



Exposure to Creativity with Opportunities to Create




Opportunities to Lead, Follow & Collaborate 




Good Sports & VOCEL: partnering for healthy bodies, healthy minds

Like VOCEL, Good Sports believes that children of all ages should have the opportunity to participate in active play and athletics. To ensure that financial limitations or a lack of school resources don’t prevent children from having these important opportunities, Good Sports partners with youth organizations and schools in cities across the country. In 2014, Good Sports brought $500,000 of athletic equipment, footwear and apparel to nearly 100,000 children across the city of Chicago.

Good Sports sets up individual partnerships that will have a positive impact, whether children are 3 years old or 18. When VOCEL began its partnership with Good Sports, team members described that we wanted children’s outdoor play to be educational and fun. We believe children should come to preschool to develop healthy bodies and healthy minds.

Good Sports stepped up to the plate, bringing each child in the VOCEL classroom a brand new pair of Saucony gym shoes, playground balls, hula hoops, jump ropes and cones. Chidren love finding creative ways to use the new materials. Thank you, Good Sports – we are excited to continue working with you!

Good Sports 1
Good Sport’s Chicago Director, Dave Whorton, poses with a group of children during outdoor play time.






More Than Words: Gifts That Keep on Giving

Children in VOCEL’s preschool classroom love reading — with teachers, by themselves and with other children — so teachers ensure there’s always a great supply of books in the classroom. We were overjoyed when one of our partners, local non-profit organization, More Than Milk, helped ensure VOCEL children had the access to high-quality literature to bring this love of books home with them each day.

This spring, More Than Milk collected hundreds of quality storybooks to stock a Lending Library where children can check out and return new stories to share with their families at home. The group even created custom VOCEL labels to put on the inside front cover of each book they donated. 



Several children at VOCEL come in to the office every evening at pick up time to return their book from the night before and select a new one to bring home. Perhaps one of the greatest sources of excitement for many of the children is checking the inside cover for the label and then exclaiming, “This book belongs to my school!”


Young children love novelty whether it be finding a new song, playing with a new toy or reading a new book. On top of that, we’ve seen the Lending Library help develop children’s sense of responsibility as they carefully select a book, place it gently into a protective carrying case and remind their parents that they have to keep it safe so they can bring it back and borrow another book.

Thank you, More Than Milk for your support of VOCEL’s program, children and families!