“Find the ringleader.”
That was but one bit of advice Lori Morris learned from her mother as she embarked on a career in education.
“Before I finished college I would spend my vacation time substitute teaching,” Morris recalled. “My first day was a total disaster. At the tender age of 19, I was in charge of a raucous group of 12- year-olds who were very happy to see a newbie sub in charge. I was devastated by my apparent inability to be effective in my new career.”
Morris remembers driving straight to her mother’s classroom for advice.
“She was great and gave me several tips, which gave me the confidence and tricks I needed to get a grip and keep going,” Morris said.
For Morris, the importance of education was instilled in her at an early age. For 40 years, her mother taught children of all ages after becoming the first in her family to go to college en route to completing a Master’s degree.
So it was natural for Morris herself to follow in her mother’s footsteps. She received her Master’s degree in Early Childhood Special Education from the George Washington University then taught in the Alexandria City Public Schools system.
Morris is the co-author of the book “Inclusive Early Childhood Education: A Model Classroom,” and the article “3 Keys to a Successful Circle Time.” She also worked on federally funded education projects focused on developing and then disseminating a model inclusion program for the public schools.
“I grew up with a brother with learning disabilities,” Morris said. “When he was in school, there were no real services for children that learned differently. We all knew he was smart, but that he didn’t fit the system. It was terrible for him. I felt this injustice very deeply and wanted to help other kids have a better education experience. I went into special education at the same time laws were being passed to ensure these services.”
Born and raised in New Jersey, Morris worked for a short while with adolescents in a New Jersey psychiatric center and did social work with adolescents in England.
“While that was important work, I learned that working with younger children was for me,” Morris said. “In Early Education you have the opportunity to work with children at a time in their lives when they are developing rapidly and you can make a huge difference in their schooling and future life experience.”
Morris left teaching full time when her children were born but continued to look for ways to help improve early education.
“I sat on a couple of preschool boards and began to understand the need for strategic growth of these programs,” Morris said. “Starting the foundation and hiring a CEO has enabled me to work in partnership with folks in the city, city public schools and community members to determine ways of working wisely.”
That foundation is the Bruhn-Morris Family Foundation, which Morris founded in 2003 and continues to serve as its president. Through the foundation, Morris supports public private partnerships and early care and education systems building, with a geographic focus in Alexandria. Through a combination of investments in research, evaluation and capacity building support, the foundation strives to enhance organizations’ abilities to use data to inform and enhance program design and deliver high quality services.
“Lori was the board chair of the Child & Family Network Centers for several years where she was instrumental in increasing the number of students served,” said CFNC Executive Director Lisa Ferrari Carter. “Lori has always been at the forefront of ensuring low-income children in Alexandria receive an early education and the start they deserve in life so they can be successful. Her passion for children and helping those less fortunate has been evident in all of her work for the last two decades.”
In addition to her contributions to CFNC, Morris was a founding member of the ACT for Alexandria board of directors and continues to chair the ACT Community Investment Committee which helped create innovative community initiatives benefiting the nonprofit sector including ACTion Alexandria, Spring2ACTion, IMPACT: Innovation + Philanthropy Forum, and the Capacity Building Grants program.
Morris has had significant impact on education programs benefitting Alexandria’s children. She was a member of the Children & Youth Master Plan Strategy Work Group and a founding member of Alexandria’s Early Care & Education Work Group. Her support and expertise were critical in the development of the Center for Alexandria's Learn & PlayGroup Curriculum.
“Lori immersed herself in every aspect of the curriculum creation, from facilitating steering committee meetings to observing playgroups to writing developmentally appropriate content,” said Carter in nominating Morris as a Living Legend of Alexandria. “It is thanks to Lori's willingness to wrestle with every piece of a project, her responsive nature and expertise in early childhood that the curriculum was completed and is now used to serve hundreds of children and families in the City of Alexandria each week.”
Morris credits both her parents for instilling in her the value of education and philanthropy.
“My parents had very little extra money when I was growing up so the actual word philanthropy was not part of the vocabulary,” Morris said. “However, the idea of helping others was very dominant. Both my parents were givers. There are many examples but the one I remember most clearly was when my dad, who was an engineer, designed and built a way for a paralyzed friend to turn the pages of a book. And my mom spent endless hours helping students who didn’t have a home and the support needed to help them at school. As I entered the work of teaching and philanthropy many wonderful people have influenced me. However, like any good early educator would, I do believe that it was my early family life that set the foundation for how I work and think today.”
Morris currently serves on the board at Community Wealth Partners. Previously, she served as vice-chair of the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation and as a board member of the INOVA Health System. Morris and her husband Nigel have been married for 33 years and together have four children.
When asked if she realizes the impact she has made on the lives of Alexandria’s children, Morris replied: “I am ever hopeful that the projects I work on positively and directly influence the lives of children. When I was teaching special education, I had a direct relationship with children and families and found that very rewarding. I am now working more at a system level because that is where I believe I can have the most impact, but as a result I have less of the direct personal connection I once had. It is important to me to have a project or two going that is a direct investment in helping a family, child or classroom. Constantly remembering the people behind the data is super important to me.”