Mission & History

Girl playing in a playground
A boy in a black and red striped shirt playing in the playground

A Mission That Puts Families First

The mission of Children First is to strengthen children and families by improving the quality of their lives through a comprehensive approach to development, education, health, and well-being.

This statement embodies the organization’s fundamental aspiration for the triumphant attainment of Head Start and Early Head Start objectives, with a primary focus on preparing both the children and their families for kindergarten and beyond.


In 1961, the Junior League of Sarasota, previously known as the Junior Welfare League of Sarasota, established the Sarasota Day Nursery with the purpose of preparing children from low-income families for Kindergarten. Their efforts not only changed lives but also laid a solid foundation for lifelong learning. The organization took on the exclusive role of providing Head Start services for Sarasota County in 1994, followed by Early Head Start in 1998.

Undergoing a name change to Children First in 2000, the organization experienced rapid growth, fueled by the pressing need for high-quality early childhood education and family empowerment programs within economically vulnerable communities. In a significant move, Children First proudly merged with the esteemed Helen R. Payne Day Nursery, previously known as the Newtown Day Nursery, in 2004.

Children First takes great pride in its role of supporting children and empowering families. Our steadfast dedication to this mission is a result of the generous support from our community, and for this, we express our heartfelt gratitude.

  • 1961

    Incorporated as Sarasota Day Nursery by Junior League of Sarasota. Tuition was one dollar per day.

    A newspaper clipping entitled "Junior Welfare League Begins Another Season". There is a black and white photo of children being pushed on swings by women behind them.
    SARASOTA - The Junior Welfare League opened the Sarasota Day Nursery in March, 1961. Under the direction of Mrs. Robertus Carr, children are cared for by several paid employees with the help of volunteers from the League and the community. The nursery, a United Appeal Agency, is open five days a week from 6:30am to 5:30pm. Children are given two snacks and a full hot lunch each day. The education committee of the nursery offers a kindergarten program for five-year-olds. A daily enrichment program includes art, music and literature. Mrs. John L. Engels heads the Sarasota Day Nursery Board which governs the affairs of the nursery. League members and other interested members of the community make up the board. The nursery operates nine months of the year. Tuition is one dollar per day. Pictured above on the playground with the children are Mrs. William Merrill, chairman of the nursery committee, and two league volunteers, Mrs Robert Smith and Mrs. Reid Farrell.
  • 1994

    The agency was awarded the status of Head Start grantee for Sarasota County serving approximately 180 preschoolers.

    Head start logo with two children's playing blocks, stacked.
  • 1998

    Became Appointed Early Head Start Grantee for Sarasota County.

    A photo of a woman with a braid in her hair embracing a baby
  • 1999

    The Families First Institute launched with the first Nurturing Dads Class. Over 2,100 men have graduated from this program to date.

    A photo of Dads and their children participating in the Nurturing Dads Class
  • 2000

    Agency name change from Sarasota Day Nursery to Children First.

    A newspaper clipping titled "Sarasota Day Nursery Change Name"
    (Sarasota, Florida) - The Sarasota Day Nursery, which for 39 years has been meeting the child care needs of low-income families on Florida's Gulf Coast, is changing its name to Children First, effective immediately. "We wanted to choose a name that better represents our mission in the community, said Executive Director Philip Tavill. "For example, we provide educational and nutritional services for our infacts, toddlers and preschoolers. We also provide extensive services to our families including education programs for our parents. In short, everything we do is about putting our Children First." Since its founding in 1961, Children First has grown to provide more than 350 children and their families with a high-quality, early learning experience. In 1995 the agency moved to its bright new facility on Orange Avenue, which today serves as the agency's administrative headquarters as well as its largest child care site. Today Children First delivers a variety of much-needed services for children from prenatal to five years of age. Those programs include an Infant and Toddler Program (for children up to three years of age) and Preschool. The Infant and Toddler Program provides infants with a safe, comforting environment where nurturing caregivers attend to each infant's needs. The agency's state-of-the-art preschool classrooms have a low adult to child ratio. Instructors use proven approaches in teaching children necessary kindergarten readiness skills with a curriculum that ensures that each child develops a life-long love of learning. Additionally, Children First encourages parents to be employed, receive job training or to be enrolled in an educational program. All of these services have a positive impact on both the children and their families. "The name change is a very significant step for us in communicating our message to the community." said Tavill. "Our total focus is on putting children and their families first." For more information contact: Ken Sons/Development Director
  • 2004

    Merged with historical Helen R. Payne Center formerly “Newtown Day Nursery.”

    A Sarasota County Street Sign for Newtown/Helen R. Payne Day Nursery
  • 2007

    Celebrated the opening of Children First campus in North Port.

    A photo of the Children First Campus in North Port with children and adults in front, waving to the camera
  • 2010

    Partnered with Sarasota County School District’s Teen Parent Program (Cyesis).

    A photograph of the children and parents of Sarasota County School District’s Teen Parent Program (Cyesis) with Philip Tavill
  • 2012

    Began serving children and families at the Suncoast Foundation Venice campus.

    The Suncoast Foundation Venice Campus office. There is a sign that says: Thank Your For Our New School
  • 2015

    Main campus site dedicated as the Dr. Elaine Marieb Early Learning Center with a gift commitment of $1 million from Dr. Marieb.

    A group shot of 11 children with a poster behind them that reads "Welcome Elaine's kids!"
  • 2016

    Raise Your Hand Campaign launched to enhance the early education and family strengthening programs offered for at-risk children and their families.

    A group of children raising their hand for the Children First 'Raise Your Hand' Campaign
  • 2021

    Children First celebrated 60 years of providing high-quality services to children and families living at-risk as CEO Philip Tavill celebrated his 25th anniversary.

    Philip Tavill reading a children's book to children in a classroom setting
  • Present

    Children First operates at multiple sites throughout Sarasota County and serves hundreds of children and their families each year.

    Tanea with her 5 children. An African American family all dressed in blue