Christine Lerin never thought she would work with children, and certainly not at the same school with her mother, Noelia Montaner — who has spent much of her career in the classroom or as a principal.
But now Lerin, 26, and Montaner, 44, are devoted to the same mission: providing the best education to low-income children in the Homestead area through The Thinking Child Christian Academy. Theirs is a labor of love that requires long hours and a fierce dedication — as well as a strong faith that financial obstacles can be overcome.
“I love working with my mom and working with the kids,” says Lerin. “I love that this is a family environment.”
Adds Montaner: “She shares the same vision for the school and the same love for the children that I do.”
Montaner, mother of two daughters and one son, spent the early years of her career in the public school system, but she wanted to do more than her assigned role. She was especially concerned about the increasing emphasis on testing. So in 2004, when a property became available in Florida City, she and her sister, Angela Pinaglia, opened a pre-school, The Thinking Child, with 35 children.
In many ways, it was a family affair. Montaner taught one class, her mother helped with the cleaning and the cooking, and everyone else pitched in. Lerin, then 17, babysat her younger brother and baby sister.
As Montaner became more involved with families in the far South Dade community, “I saw this incredible need. These people are ignored. They’re forgotten. No one knows they’re here.”
She kept her eye on expanding her school while Lerin went to college and majored in psychology. . After graduation, Lerin joined the Peace Corps to serve in the remote village of Los Jobitos in the Dominican Republic.
“My family is a family of servants,” Lerin says. “We believe in giving back to the community and this was my way of doing it.”
Eventually, Montaner took over an old site on Fourth Street in Homestead and opened a Pre-K through eighth-grade school, The Thinking Child Christian Academy. Lerin, back from the Peace Corps, joined her mother in 2011.
Initially the relationship proved tumultuous. “You have clashes,” Montaner says. “I was telling her things she needed to do, and she wasn’t listening. She wanted to do her own thing.”
Lerin admits she had a lot to learn. “My mother is a real powerhouse. She’s a go-getter, a giver.. That can be intimidating.”
Over time they worked out their differences. Lerin said, “I learned not to talk back and to trust her. But I also think God has used this school to change me, to challenge me to become a better person.”
The academy, currently at capacity, has 117 students, all of whom are on scholarships for low-income families or for students with special needs. Many are the children of farm workers.
Montaner, the school’s principal, occasionally teaches a class. Lerin serves as the school’s chaplain, outreach point person and after-school program coordinator. Both their husbands help with outreach and youth programs, and son Matthew does a music ministry after school. The youngest in the family, Maya, 10, attends the school.
Montaner has watched her eldest blossom. She launched a youth group, began actively seeking grants and has established service projects that helped build a bathroom in the Dominican village she served as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Their strengths complement each other. “I’m all about getting the children college ready. She’s worried about how to teach them to pray and about how to give back.”
Working together has brought them closer, too. “This is more than a job we do together,” Lerin says. “This is a mission.”