Mimi and Hwaida Hassanein: Building Bridges to a World of Learning

January 26, 2022

“Caring and learning go hand in hand at Kids Villa,” says Hwaida Hassanein. She runs the company’s five centers, along with her parents, husband and two siblings. Her sister is the centers’ attorney, her brother is the CFO, and her husband manages all the IT needs. “We are a family-owned and operated business,” says Hwaida’s mother Mimi. And it shows in the way Mimi thinks of an early childhood teacher’s role. “You’re almost like a mom for them,” Mimi says. “You really have to care for them since warm feelings make a huge difference in how children develop.”

So do warm, inviting surroundings, Hwaida explains. “That’s why we designed all our centers to look like beautiful mansions with cathedral ceilings, lots of windows and natural lighting. If children are going to spend an entire day in a classroom, they should enjoy being there. So, we wanted our centers to be like a child’s second home,” she says. Her goal was to combine the most rigorous standards of teaching with the greatest respect for all cultures.

That matters for the diverse families Kids Villa serves in Montgomery County, Maryland, and its environs. Many are immigrants like Mimi, who came to the U.S. from Egypt over 50 years ago. She knows the challenges newcomers face when they first arrive here, and she has solutions. “I’ve always believed education is your passport into integration. If you want to fit in, you need to have an education,” she says. “You should also be sure to learn about your new home and serve the community as a volunteer.”

Mimi has done that as a longtime advocate for children who believes in “building bridges between families of different cultures.” After her marriage to a businessman, also from Egypt, and the birth of their first child, she joined the PTA. At the time, she didn’t speak English too well, but she built bonds by bringing her wonderful, homemade baklava to PTA meetings. Baking gave her a platform to broadcast her message of diversity and inclusion. “You have to educate teachers and parents before you can educate the children,” Mimi says. “All children should feel happy, safe and secure in the classroom,” she insisted as a committed member of the PTA.

Mimi has continued speaking out for diversity as a staunch community activist and advocate for multicultural education. She currently serves as senior fellow and Middle Eastern community liaison for Montgomery County, a position she’s held since 2014. Before that, she served with many other groups, including Montgomery County’s Child Care Commission, EXCEL Beyond the Bell Program for Montgomery County Youth and the Montgomery County Muslim Council. As a board member of Empowered Women International, she helped low-income immigrant and refugee women living in the Greater DC Metro area feel at home in the U.S. and become financially self-sufficient.

Mimi also gave her children the tools to succeed and urged them to start their own business, as Hwaida would do after earning a degree in international day care management and a certification in early childhood education. She wanted to find a way to work while staying faithful to her religion and her roots. The Muslim culture with which she grew up reveres a woman’s role as a mother and manager of the family “So, my goal was to open and run a child care center where I could also raise my own kids,” Hwaida says. And she had her family’s complete support.

“In 1996, my mother, father and I built our first day care from the ground up,” Hwaida recalls. “My father arranged for the construction, my mom connected us with the community, and I designed a curriculum based on respect for each child’s unique interests and needs. While teaching in the program, I would always tell the children that this is not just my classroom. It’s also your classroom. So, what would you like to see going on in it? Our daily schedule is not law, it’s a guide.”

But it was hard for Hwaida to find teachers who shared her ideas since everyone was used to the old approach of handing out ditto sheets and having children sit in assigned places all day long. “I wanted teachers who would share my belief that we are the next best thing to mom. So, I called on people I knew in our Muslim community. I found a lot of good-hearted people, and they just needed to be certified and trained.”

So, in 2001, Hwaida started H&H Child Care Training Center, and since then she has trained over 10,000 people in the Muslim community throughout Maryland and Virginia. “Now they’re family child care providers and directors of child care centers,” she says. “Normally, these women would have stayed home and simply filled their traditional roles as wives and mothers. But the training has opened up a chance for them to have an income and hold jobs to which they could bring their kids. They’re still taking care of their children, but they’re taking care of other people’s children, too.”

Many of these women have succeeded in ways they never imagined, Hwaida explains. “We had Amal, a student from Pakistan, some time ago. She couldn’t have any children of her own and that’s hard in our culture, which expects women to be moms. Her husband had left her, and she came to our training center broken. At the time, she didn’t speak much English, so I walked her through the process of getting her degree sent from Pakistan and gave her the added training she needed to be a teacher here. Now she’s a completely different person. Her English is fluent, she feels empowered, and she directs a large government child care center that serves a diverse body of families. All the children there call her Mama Amal, and she’s well known beyond the Muslim community from which she comes.”

So is Hwaida since she has expanded to serve a diverse body of rising teachers worldwide, now 20,000 in all, including the initial Muslim contingent. H&H has offices in Maryland, Florida and Cairo that offer both online and in-person classes. “We mostly give CDA® training,” Hwaida says, “because we value the way it connects coursework to practice in the classroom. We offer coaching and mentoring through all steps of the CDA® process from the coursework to applying for the credential. I encourage all my teachers at Kids Villa to earn it,” Hwaida says, and H&H makes that convenient for all the CDA® candidates it serves. “Besides having a training and mentoring division, we have a PD Specialist on staff who can do observations in the classroom, and we partner with PD Specialists in different states. All this makes us sort of a one-stop shop for the CDA®.”

H&H is also able to customize training to fill the specific needs of different child care programs, Hwaida explains. “For example, the director of a preschool recently called me to say she was having trouble getting her staff to cooperate and treat each other with respect. So, the director and I brainstormed to come up with training that would address her situation,” and it didn’t take long. “We can design a training and have it approved in seven to 10 business days,” Hwaida says. “And I’m super excited that we can offer child care centers exactly what they need right now.”

In addition, H&H offers a wide range of timely, standard courses—professionalism, child development, health, safety, nutrition, curriculum, special needs and more—that cover everything teachers need to be licensed. And it’s all in 52 languages to meet the needs of the diverse folks that H&H serves. “Our training is sensitive to the customs and restrictions of all groups,” as Hwaida explains. “For example, when we provide in-person training for Muslim women we send the word out to the community that there won’t be any men in the training, and we provide Arabic-speaking trainers.” In addition, H&H respects the dress codes and customs of an Amish school where it provides in-person training, and an Orthodox Jewish preschool it serves in the Baltimore, Maryland, suburbs.

“Orthodox Jews are very strict about their Saturday Sabbath,” Hwaida says, “so we offer them training on Sundays. We also send trainers who speak Hebrew and the trainers wear skirts like the women they serve. Orthodox Jewish women, much like their Muslim counterparts, are very modest in their dress and cover their hair,” Hwaida explains, “since they believe a woman’s beauty should be for her husband’s eyes alone.”

This keen awareness of different cultures is one of the beauties of H&H training. So is the way it changes life for young women like Suzy, another one of Hwaida’s big successes. “Suzy came to us as a teacher’s aide at the age of 16,” Hwaida recalls. “When she was 19, she married a member of the U.S. Armed Forces and quickly got pregnant. When Suzy’s husband went to Afghanistan, Kids Villa watched her infant while she went through our training to become a teacher. As time passed, Suzy’s husband was often away on active duty, so she was largely on her own. Yet she was able to teach for us and earn her AA because we watched her five children. We had Suzy with us for 15 years until her husband came home for good. Then they moved to Florida, where she’s now the director of her own child care center. And we like to think that we were a one-stop shop for her on the road to success.”

Women like Suzy are proof that H&H “builds bridges to a world of learning,” our motto as Hwaida explains. “We connect our training to people’s philosophies, cultures and needs,” so they have the tools to open up the world for young children. “With the right teacher and the right support, young children can do anything,” Mimi adds. So, she and Hwaida want to use the businesses they’ve built to make that true for children of all backgrounds. At H&H Training and Kids Villa, reverence for good teaching and respect for tradition go hand in hand.


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