Sunday, April 14, 2024

From the Magazine: A Wee Dream Comes True

The Fuller Center celebrates its 50th anniversary this year—and there’s big news

COVID was a wake-up call for the Fuller Center, and it rose to the occasion with a whole new idea: an affordable private academy to expand its services to even more underserved school-age children. The Fuller Academy opened this year at the Fuller Center’s West Boca campus, serving kindergarten through third grade students, and offering an after-school program through fifth grade. A teen leadership program is also hitting its stride.

It’s a far cry from the center’s origins in 1971, when Boca residents Dorothy Fleegler and Frances Cohen saw a need for quality child care for immigrant children in Boca. They reached out to late philanthropists James and Florence Fuller, who bankrolled a small early childcare school with 22 children.

That number is 900 now, and that small school has blossomed into a 24/7 community touch point. Mary Coleman, director of advancement, and Ellyn Okrent, its CEO, track its growth as a response to community need, as well as community building.

“We morphed into providing full family support, because if children don’t go home to safe and stable healthy families, then everything we do here isn’t worthwhile. … So what we do now is provide a holistic cadre of case management, education [and] support to help families access the services—health and mental health and economic assistance and all the opportunities to provide stable homes for families.”

Both Coleman and Okrent underscore the importance of the families they serve—because it is the very population everyone depends on.

“Ultimately what we learned in COVID was that our families are the essential people we count on, the families that take care of us,” Okrent says. “Our families are your bus drivers, your truck drivers, your delivery people, your orderlies in the hospital, your cafeteria workers, your assistants in doctors’ offices, your radiology technicians, your bank tellers, your hotel and restaurant workers, all the people we just inadvertently expect to be there for us…”

During COVID, these families—many of them working two or three jobs—did not have the luxury of working from home; they were out there, every day, whether schools were open or closed. Kids had no place to go or study, often had no internet or computers, and no one was home to help with homework or serve lunch.

“When the schools closed down, our families needed us. It was really sort of dropped in our lap. We needed to be here for them and step up,” Okrent says. “So we very quickly went through the steps of becoming an approved [they are working now on accreditation—Ed.] private school. And we now are able to take Step Up scholarships that low-income families are able to apply for that pay for the private school tuition ($8,500 per year). For anyone interested in an affordable quality education for their child that’s a little bit more creative and more individualized to their child’s needs, this is going to be a fantastic place for them to come.”

Okrent say it was the kids, who made their way there from all over the county when schools closed, that prompted them to “look into this new little private school venture. And that’s how the academy came about.” At the same time, they saw a need for older kids—teenagers who were in the same boat—and rolled out a program for them.

“The schools in Boca are excellent,” Okrent says. “However, they close at 2:20 p.m. They don’t provide an individualized small environment, and we are year-round, from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 at night. Breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner are provided, and we don’t close for holidays and Spring Break and Christmas vacation and summer.”

Still, Okrent and Coleman say it’s ultimately all about building community.

“The best investment that anyone could give is in early education and family support,” Okrent says. “Because if our children are educated and our families are stable and strong, we have a vibrant, healthy community.”


The Fuller Center will hold its annual Wee Dream Ball, the organization’s signature fundraiser, on Friday, December 3, from 6 to 11 p.m. at Boca West Country Club. Chairing the event are Center Board President Simone Spiegel and Foundation Board President Peg Anderson, with fellow Center board members Hiromi Printz and David Clark serving as Honorary Chairs.

This year’s event will celebrate the agency’s 50th anniversary, and tickets are $300 per person and can be purchased at

To sponsor the event, purchase tickets, or to make a Gift from the Heart donation in support of the Fuller Center, please contact Special Event Manager Alana Lagerström at or call 561/391-7274, ext. 134.

This story is from the November/December issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.

Marie Speed
Marie Speed
Marie Speed is group editor of all JES publications, including Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Worth Avenue, Mizner’s Dream and the annual publication for the Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce. She also oversees editorial operations of the company’s Salt Lake City magazines. Her community involvement has ranged from work with the Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce to a longtime board member position at Caridad Center. She is also on the George Snow Scholarship Fund review committee. She is a past officer of the Florida Magazine Association and a member of Class XVII of Leadership Florida. In her spare time, Marie enjoys South Florida’s natural world through hiking and kayaking, and she is an avid reader and an enthusiastic cook.

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