Crystal Hardy-Flowers, a respected social worker and child care provider who founded a learning center and preschool in Sandtown-Winchester, died of COVID-19 complications Dec. 31 at Sinai Hospital. The Randallstown resident was 55.
Ms. Hardy-Flowers was among the first providers in the state to apply to stay open during the coronavirus pandemic to offer care for children of essential workers, said Laura Weeldreyer, executive director of the Maryland Family Network.
Mourners launch balloons to honor Crystal Hardy-Flowers, child care operator of Little Flowers Center, after she died of coronavirus on New Year's Eve
Ms. Hardy-Flowers also had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung disease that can make breathing difficult. Ms. Hardy-Flowers feared contracting the disease because of her underlying condition, Ms. Weeldreyer said, but continued working and serving the families until she was hospitalized around Christmastime.
“That’s the part that hurts so much — she was there for everyone else, but the one time we wished we could help her, we couldn’t,” said Jenera Key, a close friend whose children have grown up through the center. “There was absolutely nothing that lady would not do, and she would never complain.”
Born in Brooklyn, New York, she was the daughter of Joseph Hardy and his wife, Evelyn, a real estate broker and banker. She graduated from Edward R. Murrow High School and earned a bachelor’s degree at Morgan State University and a master’s degree in social work from Howard University.
Ms. Hardy-Flowers was a licensed social worker for many years before she decided to open a school. Friends said that as a social worker, she found that children needed early care and learning skills.
Ms. Hardy-Flowers founded the Little Flowers Early Childhood and Development Center in 2008 and ran services for children of all ages, including before- and after-school programs and summer enrichment. She integrated her social work background into the center to ensure that no child, or parent, fell through the cracks, those close to her said.
“She was one of the most compassionate, talented, and brave child care providers I know,” Margaret Williams said. ”I met Crystal when I was executive director of Maryland Family Network.”
The Little Flowers Early Childhood and Development Center was first located in a Baker Street home. It grew, and Ms. Hardy-Flowers relocated the center to Fremont Avenue at Carey Street.
Ms. Williams also said: “She expanded her program from several children to almost 200 and eventually earned the highest-quality rating in child care available from the state. She became a statewide advocate for quality, accessible, and affordable child care while demonstrating that it could be done, even in an inner-city community where families face many barriers to success.”
Before going into child care, Ms. Hardy-Flowers was a social worker who led a team of counselors caring for abused children at the Baltimore Child Abuse Center.
“She’s as close to a saint as anyone I know,” Ms. Williams said.
Linda Cowan Brown said, “Crystal was the hardest-working person I have known. ... It was just magical to watch her do a forensic interview. Kids were able to tell her their deep, dark secrets. Kids immediately felt safe around Crystal.”
In a 2014 Sun article about the center Ms. Hardy-Flowers described how a teacher witnessed children throwing classroom furniture. Bookcases, chairs, tables — all were flung around the room. There was also biting, the article said.
Ms. Hardy-Flowers “urged the staff to be patient with the children, who often were like any other preschoolers — dancing to music, playing tea party and climbing onto a teacher’s lap.”
The article also said: “The former social worker understood something that her teachers did not. The kids were growing up in Upton/Druid Heights, where police chases are common and sirens wake up kids like unwelcome alarm clocks at night. Almost every day, in some way, the kids were exposed to violence.”
“It’s not just bad behavior. It is not just defiance,” Ms. Hardy-Flowers said in the article. “No, it is deeper than that. People just don’t pick up chairs and throw them at you. Children don’t just run out of the building.”
“[Many] of these children are left with deep psychological wounds that can trigger physical ailments,” The Sun’s account said. “Studies have piled up showing that in the tangle of tough, intractable issues like poverty and drug addiction, exposure to violence is a major factor damaging children’s health.”
Ms. Weeldreyer, of the Maryland Family Network, said centers in more affluent parts of the state, with wealthier clients, might offer similar services.
But Hardy-Flowers’ keen business acumen meant she never had to turn a parent away, Ms. Weeldreyer said.
“I don’t think anybody thinks high-quality care would be synonymous with an old, closed school building in Sandtown-Winchester,” she said. “But they worked with what they had.”
Courtney Miller, a mother of four and a Little Flowers parent, said Ms. Hardy-Flowers always helped her find ways to fill in the gaps when money was tight.
“I’ve gone through so much with her, and the one thing she never did was turn her back on me,” said Ms. Miller, a city resident.
“A lot of people turn their backs on, and don’t want to be bothered with, a neighborhood that is considered ‘urban’ or not great. She wasn’t scared to be around none of it. She went right into that neighborhood because that’s where she was needed most,” Ms. Miller said.
“Crystal was just really extraordinary and very dynamic, and was outstanding in her ability to connect with families and to really listen to what they needed beyond child care,” said Nancy Pelton, director of the Baltimore City Child Care Resource Center. “This is a very significant loss.”
A 2015 Sun article described how Ms. Crystal-Flowers hosted a formal cotillion for her children.
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“[The cotillion] takes their minds from the negativity,” Ms. Hardy-Flowers said. “It shows them there’s something other than violence and aggression when they need to express themselves.”
She also said of the event, “It’s about bringing the community together and supporting our children and their futures. It’s a chance to honor our children and their accomplishments. And they like to get dressed up; that’s a nice thing, too.”
The Maryland State Department of Education released a statement Monday night, saying: “MSDE is heartbroken to learn of this tragic loss within our early childhood education community. As our early childhood educators and child care providers have been working on the frontline throughout the pandemic, Dr. [Karen] Salmon has requested that MDH prioritize vaccines for these professionals along with teachers and school staff in the tier for essential workers.”
Survivors include Ms. Hardy-Flowers’ daughters, Ashley Flowers and Jasmine Hardy of Baltimore; her mother, Evelyn Hardy of Randallstown; two brothers, Joseph Hardy Jr. of Pennsylvania and Raymond Hardy of Glen Burnie; a sister, Anita Hardy of Columbia, South Carolina; and a grandson.