Children playing at Blossoms Early Learning Center in Yakima, Washington

Children play in the nature-inspired play area at Blossoms Early Learning Center in Yakima, Washington, in October.(TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

Good Fruit Grower isn’t the only entity recognizing the Plath family’s longstanding tradition to give back to their communities. The Washington Apple Education Foundation also recognized the Plath family, along with employees of the Washington Fruit and Produce Co., as its 2018 volunteers of the year.

“Seventeen of their employees and family members volunteered with us this past year and the employees really do that with the family’s support and encouragement,” WAEF Executive Director Jennifer Witherbee said. Volunteers serve on the organization’s board, review scholarship applications, mentor students and build care packages to offer support to students away at school. On the donation side, the Plaths have awarded scholarships to 130 students over the past eight years.

“One of the things I’ve really appreciated is that Rick and Lisa and Cliff and Janie have taken a real interest in their students. They host lunches and get to know the students,” she said. Last year, they had to change locations for the lunch at the last minute because so many students are now involved.

But the Plaths’ commitment to education starts long before college scholarships.

In downtown Yakima, almost 70 3- and 4-year-olds attend a colorful preschool, with a nature-inspired outdoor play area and school-readiness curriculum, which the Plath Family Foundation built in 2016. Blossoms Early Learning Center is run through a partnership with the local education service district with the aim of serving children from high-need families.

Educational Service District 105 Early Learning Programs Director Cynthia Juarez credits Cliff Plath with pushing the idea for the first-of-its-kind public-private partnership preschool.

“His vision was to have a high-quality preschool model for Yakima that would expand school readiness,” Juarez said. “It’s definitely a really good model for supporting working families and leveraging resources.”

The desire to fund early childhood education started in Royal City, where many of the company’s orchards are located, Cliff said.

Cliff Plath

Cliff Plath, shown here in a family orchard, partnered with the local education service district to build the school, which was designed by Graham Baba Architects, who also designed Washington Fruit and Produce Co.’s award-winning main office. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

“I’d see these kids just playing in a pile of dirt, their parents off working,” he remembered. “So, I’d see these kids and then go to my own kids’ Montessori school. … I thought, that’s what these Royal City kids need.”

About a decade ago, he reached out to the Royal City School District, where school officials agreed there was a need for a school-readiness program. Together, they designed a Washington Fruit-funded preschool program that began running in a church basement in 2010. Called “Growing Great Learners,” it offers transportation, meals and a two-day-a-week program for two groups of students.

“We’ve had some success there, but we’d like to get all of them in five days a week,” Cliff said. That’s why he’s partnered with the school district and the area Head Start program to build another school that will offer full-day childcare and a school-readiness curriculum, like Blossoms in Yakima.

“Blossoms opens at 5:30 a.m. to make it work for working families like our employees,” he said. “These half-day, state-run programs are great, but they don’t always work for working families.”

Initially, the Plath Foundation funded the schools’ operations, providing discounts for employees’ children and sliding-scale tuition, but now grants from the state’s Early Childhood Education & Assistance Program for low-income children cover most of the operational costs. Cliff said the foundation plans to donate the Yakima building — designed by the same award-winning architect who conceived the company’s headquarter offices — to the district and begin construction on the new school in Royal City and an additional new preschool in another high-need area of Yakima.

Supporting education is in the Plath family blood, Cliff said. He has photos of both of his grandfathers in his office: Fred B. Plath, who started the fruit business in 1916, and A.C. Davis, the superintendent of Yakima City Schools from 1913 to 1947.

Philanthropy was important to his parents, Dorothy and Fred, who were longtime supporters of many community organizations in their hometown of Yakima, where they met at the very school, A.C. Davis High School, that is now named for Dorothy’s father. Washington Fruit and the Plath family have become known across the region for their quiet support of numerous causes, from the arts and public parks to children’s health care and the homeless.

Blossoms Early Learning Center in Yakima, Washington

Blossoms Early Learning Center provides a school-readiness curriculum for three- and four-year-olds, along with full-day childcare, so that the program can work for the schedules of working families. Cliff Plath’s support for expanding access to this high-quality early childhood education could be a model for other donors, the school officials said. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

The new preschools don’t bear the Plath name; in fact, the connection is kept rather discreet, but they hope Cliff’s vision for how private donors can work with public services and state and federal grants will become a model for others.

“We’ve had lots of interest in it, so we hope that will spark more expansion,” Juarez said. “We’re just really happy that Cliff and his family made this commitment to school readiness. It’s already had a huge impact.” •

-by Kate Prengaman