Richard Dean calls it the "golden hour," when 3- to 4-year-old children take in literacy and social skills like a favorite snack.

Harnessing the golden hour for underprivileged children in Columbia's Owen Brown community, Dean said, was among the reasons he and other members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia launched a day care center eight years ago.

Dean is president of the Cradlerock Children's Center, a nonprofit facility that offers a Maryland State Department of Education-accredited program for children ages 6 weeks to 5 years, many of them from families that could not otherwise afford quality child care.

His leadership in the venture has earned him this year's Economic Justice Award from the Washington-based Unitarian Universalists for Social Justice. The organization is made up of Unitarian Universalists congregations in the Baltimore-Washington area that focus on immigration, economic justice, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.

"He's been very concerned and helpful with children," said the Rev. Cynthia Snavely, UUSJ administrator. "He's also been involved in making sure children of immigrant families have opportunities as well."

Dean said that the children's center illustrates how nonprofit facilities can serve the community in one of its most critical needs. In addition to offering interactive, play-oriented lessons, the center cooks all of its meals from scratch and offers an English immersion program for three hours a day for its non-English-speaking children. The center offers breakfast and lunch to the children.

"In the school you have a good demographic mix," said Graham Cruickshank of Columbia, whose 3-year-old son attends the center.

He added that the demographic is consistent with the vision of James Rouse, who crafted Columbia, a planned community. "He would have said, 'This is great, kids of various backgrounds and socioeconomic strata in a nice environment working together.' "

"The adage is that a child's job is to play and that's how they learn," Dean said. "Kids learn 90 percent [of] what they're going to know in their lifetime within the first five years of their lives. This is where they learn all their social skills. At ages 3 to 4, they're learning language skills like crazy. This is the first rung up the ladder of success."

Dean said the school, which opened in August 2005, has operating costs of about $650,000 annually and receives about $50,000 in donations. He said it costs about $12,000 for each child 3 to 4 years old who attends five days a week and about $18,000 for each infant who attends five days a week. The school has about 60 students, and its staff includes one adult for every three infants.

"I have always felt passionate about day care and preschool," said Dean. "[The congregation] thought, what a great opportunity to really serve this community and really serve the kids in the community and serve underprivileged kids who wouldn't have a chance."

Dean said about 25 percent of the children receive financial support. The center accepts Department of Social Services purchase-of-care vouchers, and school officials said the center recently received a $4,000 award from the Columbia Foundation's 2013 Community Grant Program to fund its English immersion program.

"Our sense was," Dean said, "that we would really put together a really quality program, one where we would send our children, where we would provide living wages and health care for our staff and serve the underprivileged in our community."

Dean said the center and English immersion program will be expanded in coming years, and plans for a nursery school program are being implemented.

jburris@baltsun.com