In 2007, Wee Blessings Preschool & Academy opened its doors at Queen Creek and Cooper roads in Chandler. The faith-based preschool quickly gained popularity with local families for its high standards, low ratios, and credentialed teachers—including Mariza Martinez-Gay, the school's beloved Spanish teacher, who sadly passed away at age 46 in 2014.
Wee Blessings' Owner/Director Debi Larkin-Chavez says Martinez-Gay was truly special and a one-of-a-kind teacher.
“Mariza was one of my best friends,” says Larkin-Chavez. “She had so much energy and was so full of light. Parents and students absolutely loved her.”
Martinez-Gay incorporated fun into her lessons, using music and dance every day to keep the students engaged.
“She and her daughters were folklorico dancers, and she did that with her students,” said Larkin-Chavez. “They really enjoyed it.”
In addition to a love of dance and culture, Martinez-Gay brought impressive experience to the preschool. Originally from Michigan, she graduated from Eastern Michigan University with a degree in elementary education. Upon graduation, she taught elementary students before retiring to be a stay-at-home mom. In 1999 her family relocated to Arizona, where she became involved in children's ministry at Chandler Christian Church before ultimately returning to teaching at Wee Blessings when it opened.
Larkin-Chavez and Martinez-Gay met in 2003 when they were in a Moms of Preschoolers (MOPS) group together. They became fast friends who shared similar core values and a passion for educating youth.
Larkin-Chavez was looking for a preschool that blended a high standard of academics with Bible-based lessons. She couldn't find one that fit the bill. With her husband's encouragement, she started her own.
Today, Wee Blessings has seven total classes, and staggers the schedule to keep the class maximum at only 12 students per class. It has a fully accredited preschool program and a full-day kindergarten class.
“We started with an inaugural class of 14 and now we have over 200 students a year,” Larkin-Chavez says. “What makes Wee Blessings so successful and sets us apart is our curriculum, which I write myself. We take the state standards and go way above and beyond.”
Not long after opening, Martinez-Gay suggested starting a Spanish program.
“The kids loved it,” Larkin-Chavez says. “Mariza made it fun. She was amazing and brought the very best out of each and every student.”
Sadly, Martinez-Gay was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer in 2013. The illness forced her to quit teaching mid-year. But, her passion and love for her students ran so deep that she made sure to visit her classes whenever she could, and even took the time to pick her own replacement at the school—someone who would carry on her legacy as the pre-school's Spanish teacher.
Before her passing, Martinez-Gay and her husband Leonard asked Larkin-Chavez and her husband (and co-owner) Phil if they could start a nonprofit organization to help Wee Blessings with a scholarship fund for families who have fallen on hard times. About a month before she passed, the group got together and laid out the groundwork for the Mariza Gay Foundation. Now parents can donate to the foundation, which goes directly to the school and allows students to continue on with their education even if the child’s family finds themselves unable to pay the tuition for any reason.
“She didn't want any child to miss out on a quality education at Wee Blessings due to finances,” says Larkin-Chavez.
There are no criteria for families to receive the support if they need it.
“We're usually able to quickly identify if a family has fallen on hard times,” says Larkin-Chavez. “If we see that we'll ask if they need/want the assistance and we step in.”
According to Larkin-Chavez, the foundation funds have supported close to 75 children since it was founded.
“We just don't want to lose children because of money,” she says. “We've also had families tour our school with interest but unable to pay the tuition, and in those cases we can work with them.”
So far most of the support the foundation has received has come directly from Larkin-Chavez and her husband, but any and all financial support is welcomed and is a tax write-off.
“Mariza was such an incredible person, and we want to make her proud,” says Larkin-Chavez. “I really miss my friend.”
To learn more about Wee Blessings Preschool & Academy and to donate to the Mariza Gay foundation, visit WBPre.com.