WINTER PARK DAY NURSERY
Ali DeMaria always thought she wanted to work with children. But after graduating from the University of Colorado with a degree in psychology, she didn’t have a more specific career path in mind. “So, I waited tables,” she says. “Isn’t that what all psychology grads do?” During college, she had taken a semester off to lifeguard at Walt Disney World and work as a server at Planet Hollywood in Disney Springs, where she developed a fondness for Central Florida’s warm weather. After graduating, she relocated from the chilly Rocky Mountains and took a job as trainer and server at Mimi’s Cafe at the Mall at Millenia. Little did she know, she was setting the table for her future. “I found myself spending more time with the children of the guests than the adults,” she says. “I was carrying babies around with me in the restaurant while the families ate.” Suddenly, her path was clear. DeMaria added “interested in working with children” to her CareerBuilder profile and soon got a call from the Winter Park Day Nursery, a beloved local institution founded in 1939 to serve working mothers whose husbands were in the military during World War II. DeMaria joined the nonprofit nursery in 2005 as a teacher, and later became family services coordinator and director of education before then-board chair David Isaacson, an investment advisor, made her an offer that she thought she could refuse: executive director. “I don’t have a business degree,” she told him, “I’m six months pregnant. Are you sure this is what you want to do?” Isaacson was sure — and a decade later, no one has any regrets. DeMaria, who turned 40 in January, found her calling as a director who “has done pretty much every job in the building.” She has raised staff retention — which for decades fluctuated between 40 and 60 percent — to 92 percent. She and her husband, Geoff Lee, have a son: Dillon, 8, who was the inspiration for arguably her most notable achievement — adding a program at the nursery for infants and toddlers. And all the while she’s kept learning, earning a master’s degree in mental health counseling and a certificate in marriage and family therapy from Rollins College in 2010 and 2011. Shortly thereafter, she also notched advanced level childcare and education program director credentials from the Florida Department of Children and Families.