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Diane Neighbors, champion of child care at Vanderbilt, to retire

by Sep. 21, 2015, 10:22 AM

Diane Neighbors, director of the Vanderbilt Child and Family Center, will retire Sept. 30. (Joe Howell/Vanderbilt)

Diane Neighbors was a part-time student at Peabody College in the early 1980s when her academic adviser, Earline Kendall, recruited her to help develop a plan for a child care center at Vanderbilt. At the time, Neighbors was directing a child care program at Nashville’s Jewish Community Center while chipping away at her doctorate one class at a time.

After several proposals and much perseverance by Vanderbilt’s women’s center and others, then-Chancellor Joe B. Wyatt approved a proposal for a program to serve children of Vanderbilt faculty, staff and students.

There was much to be done. Kendall and Neighbors led a small but determined team that set about finding a location, creating budgets and operating procedures, purchasing supplies and equipment, recruiting and hiring staff—and enrolling families.

“I remember we took over some faculty space right here in this building on Appleton Drive and opened the center with about 12 children the first week,” Neighbors said. “We thought, ‘Uh-oh, all eyes are on this new child care program we’ve pushed so hard for, and we only have 12 children!’ But we felt sure that within a month we would be at capacity, and we were.”

Neighbors spent the next few years completing her degree at Peabody and “saving the world,” as she describes it, in various teaching and child advocacy jobs before returning to Vanderbilt to run the ever-expanding child care program.

Renamed the Vanderbilt Child and Family Center, it now has grown to include five centers currently accommodating 577 children of faculty, staff and students. (The fifth center opened on 19th Avenue South last month.) Neighbors has been instrumental in these additions as well as a natural expansion of offering an array of family resources, including referrals for elder care, back-up child care, summer camps, workshops on pregnancy issues, caregiver support, financial planning and more.

“Each time we’ve opened a new center and been able to accommodate more families and get more people off the waiting list, it has given me a great sense of satisfaction that we are helping families achieve work-life balance,” Neighbors said. “I’m proud that we have had two of our classroom teachers receive the Commodore Award and be recognized by their peers for giving 210 percent. There have been so many highlights to look back on and be proud of.”

Neighbors has been the recipient of many awards and honors herself, particularly for her longtime work as an ally of the Human Rights Campaign. She has served on countless boards and committees, including the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. As if that weren’t enough, for the past 12 years she has been a very public advocate for children and families in Nashville’s political arena as vice mayor of Nashville and Davidson County, the first woman to hold the position.

“I’ve always been an advocate for children and families, and serving as vice mayor gave me a visible platform from which to do that,” she said. “But for the most part, I see myself as being an educator and administrator. Even back to my Peabody days, my path was set to support children and families.”

After more than 25 years at Vanderbilt, Neighbors’ last day on campus is Sept. 30. Leaving a place she has called home for so long won’t be easy, but she is glad to leave the program while it is at its most robust.

“Thanks to the chancellor’s office, vice chancellors and support from Human Resources and others, we have a wonderful financial plan, facility renewal funds, adequate funding for classroom supplies and staffing,” she said. “Chancellor Zeppos has been so supportive in making sure child care is the best it can be for the Vanderbilt community. I’m glad I can leave it in such a good place.”

Those close to Neighbors are having a hard time imagining the natural powerhouse as a retiree.

“I want to sit outside and read a book for the first month, but my friends say I will get bored after the first day, and then what will I do?” she said with a laugh. “My husband says when it comes right down to it, they will have to carry me out kicking and screaming. He doesn’t really believe I’m leaving at the end of the month. It’s kind of bittersweet, but I’m very excited about doing lots more things with my family.”

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