BENTON HARBOR — There may be a new face at the helm of the Readiness Center, but the mission is the same – to give Benton Harbor parents the tools they need to give their children the best start in life they can.

“The parents and children we get here amaze me on a daily basis,” said Martha Thieneman, who took over as executive director at the Benton Harbor center July 1. “They are excited to learn. They are invested in education. They have the drive to do great things.”

Even though she’s the center’s new leader, she’s not new to the center. Thieneman has worked at the center since 2008, first as the fund development coordinator and office assistant and then as associate director. 

The center is more than a preschool, where parents drop their children off to be picked up later. Thieneman said the parents commit to staying at the center six hours a week. For the first 20-30 minutes parents work with their children.

“The rest of the time, they are in an adults-only environment where they can have just a little bit of a break from the kids, but also have an opportunity to learn skills or information that will help them be better parents,” she said.

What the parents focus on learning is determined by the parents in the fall, Thieneman said. 

“We don’t tell them what they need to learn,” she said. “They let us know what would be the most helpful to them because then they have ownership over it and they’re really engaged in all of their programming.”

Programs can include ones on parenting, sewing, crafts and computer skills. In addition, she said they bring in speakers on topics such as how to manage money and take care of their health.

The preschool is operated Tuesdays through Thursdays, with morning and afternoon sessions. The center was started in 1980 by Sister Paulita Walters of the Sisters of Mercy, an international religious order. Sister Paulita, as everyone calls her, was both the preschool teacher and the administrator until she retired June 30.

Retired public school teacher Diane Underwood, the center’s new teacher, joked that it took two people to replace Sister Paulita.

Underwood is now starting her third year working at the center.

“I just kind of watched her beautiful spirit in this beautiful place ... for two years,” said Underwood, who retired from being a first- and second-grade teacher at Berrien Springs Public Schools in 2017. “I was a para-pro. And now I’m taking over the teaching.”

Over the years the center grew to include an after-school program, called City Kids, Mondays through Thursdays for students up to fifth-grade, and a three-week program in the summer. Thieneman said most of the students in the after-school program had attended the preschool one. Later, in high school, the students can serve as teen mentors where they volunteer half of their time and are paid the other half.

While still working in Berrien Springs, Underwood volunteered during the center’s summer program. That’s when Sister Paulita approached her about taking over teaching someday. Underwood said the center is much more than a preschool.

“It’s like a center for all ages, starting from the preschool to the parents to the school-aged kids, the City Kids, to the teen mentor program,” she said. “Even grandparents are involved in this.”

Thieneman added: “It’s all about lifelong learning. Diane was kind of the lead this year, with Sister Paulita assisting.”

She said the center has a family feel to it and often educates more than one generation in a family. For instance, the center’s aid, Teara Richardson, is a former student in the program who now has two of her own children in it. She said the center serves about 100 families a year who live in the Benton Harbor school district.

The center is funded by donations. These can be made online at, or by calling the center at 926-4084. In addition, anyone who would like to volunteer can call that number to talk with Thieneman. 

Contact:, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege