LIONHEART CHILDREN’S ACADEMY AT CENTRAL CHURCH: Happy kids + happy parents + happy staff = happy church

Oksana Miller (Academy Director); Julie Cook (Assistant Academy Director); Giselle Arroyo (Front Desk, 2019-2021);  Lidya Pixley (Community Director)


By RaeAnn Slaybaugh

Back in 2015, Central Church in Plano, Texas, wasn’t offering childcare at all. Suddenly, the chance emerged to open one of the first Lionheart Children’s Academy locations in America — a licensed, full-service, church-based childcare and early childhood education (ECE) facility.
No one would blame Lead Pastor Paul Cook and his wife, Julie, if it seemed too daunting. Providing childcare is hard work — and a lot of it. Between licensing, staffing, adapting and/or building the space to house this much-needed ministry, it could easily be dismissed as a hill too steep to climb. 
But the Cooks embraced the idea immediately. One big reason: they wouldn’t be doing it alone.

For Central Church in Plano, Texas, the path to providing high-quality, church-based childcare began nearly a decade ago. That’s when Donna McClintock, the wife of Central Church’s executive pastor at the time, was brought onboard as President of Lionheart Children’s Academy. Soon after, Lionheart Founder Stan Dobbs and McClintock reached out to Lead Pastor Paul Cook and his wife, Julie, about the possibility of launching a Lionheart location at the church.

“When I heard the idea, I didn’t even care about the math,” Paul recalls. “I thought, This is so cool. We said yes immediately.”

It also offered Julie Cook — now Assistant Academy Director — something she’d been seeking: a brand-new way to serve.

“I’d been a pastor’s wife for 30-some years at that time, and I was looking to minister in a different realm,” she recalls. “I’ve always loved kids. It just seemed right for me to work here. But I don’t think I understood the magnitude of the ministry that would happen.”

So true: since this would be only the fourth Lionheart location in existence, the Cooks were taking on a potentially huge project.

Happily, the reality of making the Academy a reality proved much simpler.

Bringing a big calling within reach

Central Church is located inside an old movie theater. Already, two theaters were allocated as the primary worship space. Another was dedicated for use by kids and youth. The rest served as classrooms, offices and so on. Retrofitting was needed to meet licensing requirements: restrooms, a commercial kitchen, and FFE (furniture, fixtures and equipment) were added.

Prior to this, the Lionheart team was instrumental in securing the necessary approvals to operate a licensed childcare facility. This process involved going before the City Council to make presentations, ensuring the Health Department approved the kitchen’s construction, and much more. Suffice it to say, having them take the leading oar made all these things far more manageable for the church.

With the appropriate go-aheads secured or in progress, the Lionheart team and Central Church leaders shifted their focus to marketing. As one effort, they knocked on doors within a five-mail radius of the church to spread the word about the new childcare offering in the area.

“Thankfully, the burden doesn’t rest on the church staff or the pastor alone [to spread the word]; Lionheart helped us market the Academy, as well as train, hire, and so much more — in fact, they handled the bulk of those things,” says Academy Director Oksana Miller. “That’s part of what makes it such a good partnership.”

Uniquely, the Lionheart team was also poised to help church leaders navigate the cultural shift that came with opening a full-time childcare facility within the church. Rather than just operating on the weekends, now the facility would need to be ready around the clock. Every week, for example, childcare classrooms would need to be cleaned and sanitized on Sunday evenings for a 6:30 a.m. opening on Monday mornings.

“It definitely took a little bit of time to adjust — about a year,” Pastor Cook explains. “It’s sort of like getting married, you know? You find out where your snag points are.”

Julie agrees: “It’s ongoing, too; it’s a constant dance of making things work.”

“This is Central Church. This is what we do.”

“Making things work” would require complete buy-in from Pastor Cook, which he demonstrated from the start.

“I view this as a ministry,” he explains. “And because of this, I view this whole group of people who are involved as part of our current church body — parents and children.

“They’re not our ‘future church; they’re already part of us. So, knowing what the needs are — the families, the kids and the staff members —  enables us to minister to those dynamics,” he adds.

Julie Cook agrees: “He doesn’t look at this as ‘them’ and ‘us’ — it’s all ‘us.’ This is Central Church. This is what we do. [Lionheart] is our ministry, as is our church, so the staff is constantly being reminded of that and pulled in.”

True to form, Paul’s constant involvement with Lionheart enables Julie to confidentially share with him short backstories of struggling parents. “He’ll make sure to show them some extra attention and love,” she says. “I’ll ask, ‘Hey, can the church help them in any way?’”

Because of this, Central Church’s benevolence funds are often exhausted to assist struggling families via Lionheart. The Cooks wouldn’t have it any other way.

Beyond helping them identify a family’s need for financial assistance, Lionheart offers an opportunity to connect struggling parents with much-needed ministries, including Celebrate Recovery and Financial Peace University. “We’re not demanding anybody be a member here,” Pastor Cook points out. “We offer these services simply because we want to minister to our community.”

The Cooks are such familiar faces at Lionheart that most of the children call them “Pau-Pau” and “Ju-Ju.”

“’Pastor Paul’ sounds like ‘Pau-Pau’ to them,” Julie laughs. “We’re like an extra set of grandparents for a lot of the kids.”

Not surprisingly, operational discussions about Lionheart frequently come home with the Cooks. They also often arise in conversations with Academy Director Oksana Miller, whom the Cooks regard as a daughter. Well outside of the childcare’s operating hours, the three spend a lot of time talking about billing needs, contacts that need to be made with parents, and so on.

“At all of our gatherings, we promise each other not to talk about Lionheart,” Miller points out.

“… And then we do,” Paul asserts.

“Yes. Then we do,” Miller laughs.

A leap of faith

For her part, Oksana Miller’s trajectory into the top leadership position at Lionheart Children’s Academy began when Central became her home church nearly a decade ago. Originally from Kyiv, Ukraine, she and the Cooks had a relationship even before Miller moved to Texas from Ohio.

Knowing her heart to serve, Paul and Julie approached Miller about taking on Lionheart’s Community Director position in 2016. In this role, she served as the liaison between the church and the Academy.

“So, I was with Lionheart from the beginning,” Miller recalls. “Even though I’d never worked in childcare before, we went through all of the processes — hiring, licensing, learning the industry. It was kind of scary; definitely a leap of faith, for me.”

It paid off: Miller was presented with an opportunity to become the Academy’s interim director in 2018. Then, she secured the needed credentials to become Academy Director, officially — the role she still serves today.

“Pastor [Cook] always said, ‘If the door is opening in front of you, just walk through it,’” Miller says. “I had to learn a lot, but it was very beneficial.”

Secrets behind a highly tenured staff

Across the nation, the “revolving-door” problem among childcare workers is an ever-present challenge.

Download the eBook!

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, staff turnover rates at centers serving children birth to age 5 were almost double the turnover rate among staff in centers serving children ages 3-5. Additionally, of all childcare center types, private-pay centers serving children birth to 5 had the highest staff turnover. This held true even after accounting for wages and other factors.

Lionheart Children’s Academy at Central Church stands in sharp contrast to these dismaying figures. Impressively, it has one of the most tenured staff of all 20 Lionheart locations. Moreover, nearly every staff member — in the church and in the childcare alike — has children or grandchildren attending Lionheart.

The Cooks’ grandchildren attend. So does Community Director Lydia Pixley’s daughter. And Miller’s 11-year-old daughter was Lionheart’s first student! Now, her 7-month-old daughter is also in its care.

“Every morning, my baby goes to her teachers with open arms because they love her, they pray over her,” Miller shares. “This is what we mean when we say we take a holistic approach. It’s not just about education but also loving the whole child.”

Julie agrees: “We really feel like this is a mission; we’re always going to pour into people. Like the Lionheart leadership team and Oksana always say, people come to us for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. We’re going to try to make sure it’s a lifetime.”

This, of course, involves lovingly shepherding Academy staff.

“Everybody’s here because God led us all to be here at the same time,” Julie says. “We have some hard, honest conversations that are spoken with love and grace, which the Lionheart team taught us to do from the beginning. We just feel that people are worth it, you know?”

As a benefit, the teachers’ longevity with the Academy speaks volumes to potential Lionheart families.

“When you give tours and say, ‘This teacher has been with us since we opened — six, seven years — it’s a great selling point,” Julie says. “Our teachers love working here. They even recruit their friends in childcare to come work with them. We have that happening right now.”

According to Pastor Cook, part of the reason the staff is so loyal is because, as a collective, they are dedicated to maintaining a peaceful working environment.

“They don’t let things stir; they try to take the high road,” he explains. “We still have confrontations, but they never get ugly or personal.

“The other day, I heard that marriage which survive decades have a few common factors: communication, for one, but also conflict resolution,” he adds. “It’s the same thing, here.”

Miller agrees, pointing out that staff members just want to be heard.

“Maybe you can’t fix the problem in that second, but they want to know they’re valuable to you and you’re on their side,” she explains. “If your staff is happy, then the kids are happy. And if the kids are happy, then the parents are happy. That’s when you keep those families.”

Lead Pastor Paul Cook

Diversity drives the mission

Lionheart Children’s Academy at Central Church is also one of the most diverse Academy locations, rich with culture.

In itself, Plano is very diverse. According to the most recent data by, the community is 11% Black, 16% Hispanic, and 22% Asian. These nationalities, together, represent half the city’s population.

For its part, Central Church has always reflected this diversity.

“Even before we launched Lionheart Children’s Academy, we had a vision to love more people from more places,” Miller points out. “It’s on a wall in our lobby in big, huge letters. It’s in front of our faces all the time, reminding us to love people from all backgrounds, from all walks of life, from all different nations.”

Now, Lionheart Children’s Academy reflects the same mission — not only among the families who use its services, but also among its staff.

“Lionheart became a reflection of our church heart, which is a missionary heart,” Pastor Cook says. “We hear every language and dialect you can imagine, here.”

Miller echoes this sentiment, pointing out that Lionheart families come from a wide array of countries, including Colombia, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Mexico, India, Philippines, Brazil, China, Korea and Ukraine. Accordingly, some of the teachers speak languages besides English — Chinese, Portuguese and Spanish among them — which has proven pivotal.

“God was bringing us some students who’d never spoken English. So, how amazing! If I have a student who only speaks Chinese, I have a teacher who can talk with her,” Miller says. “Maybe that teacher is in a different classroom, but she can still come and comfort and help that student.”

“If you’re just doing this to make money, do something easier.”

Now, as Lionheart Children’s Academy at Central Church approaches capacity, Miller and the Cooks are looking towards the future.

“We know [Paul] has a bigger vision for Lionheart,” Julie says. “He’s willing for it to grow. We pray about it all the time.”

One thing is for sure: God is in the driver’s seat.

“He knows where we’re going, and He knows the people we need to be in contact with,” Julie adds. “As we anticipate the next step, we feel like we can confidently say that God leading us down a great path.”

Cook agrees and says he’s most excited about the impact Central Church and Lionheart Children’s Academy can continue to have on their community and beyond. Way beyond.

“What inspires me is the idea that Lionheart can take over the childcare industry for Christ,” he says. “I think it’s an achievable vision, and I’m really excited for people to adopt that as a mission. Not as a money-making tool — that would be the wrong motivation — but as a ministry. I think we can make a huge difference in America by doing it well.

“I say this sincerely: If you’re just doing this to make money, do something easier,” he adds. “But if you’re looking to provide effective ministry, I can’t think of a better option.”


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