“There’s nothing like the smile and laughter of a child. You know, in those eyes you see the future,” said Executive Director Dr. Thelma Dye in her office at the Northside Center for Child Development, Inc. in Harlem. At Northside Center, her job, to a large degree, is to ensure that the children stay well.

“One of the things that’s so important to us at Northside is to feel the child’s world with art and music as well as academic enrichment because you want children to feel good about themselves, to feel like they could conquer the world, that there’s nothing that they can’t do. They have to be filled with hope and a sense of mastery, a sense of competence, and that’s what we do,” she said.

Dye oversees a staff of about 300 full- and part-time employees who work in different specialized fields, dealing with psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, occupational therapists and physical therapists who collectively work on serving the children of the Harlem community with care and sensitivity.

“My mother always worked in the health care field, and I was drawn, always, to children. I’ve always loved children. I always knew that whatever I did, I’d work with children because I just enjoy them, and I enjoy seeing them very happy,” she said as she emphasized the word “very.”

“I think that’s very important, and I think children with mental health problems, or children who are unhappy or depressed seemed like an enigma to me because it seemed not the way children should be.”

This service of protecting the children is predicated on the important work of founders Kenneth Bancroft Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark that began in the basement of the Dunbar Housing Project in the 1940s. The couple created the center after they realized there weren’t a lot of mental health services in the Harlem community for young people. The Clarks are most notably known for their doll experiments in the 1940s that explored the perceptions African-American children had of themselves and their expert advice in the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case.

After serving in a number of capacities with various agencies dealing with mental health and child advocacy, Dye has been working since 1994 on the Clarks’ mission to make and keep the children strong.

With books written by Kenneth Clark, such as “Racism and American Education,” “The Nature of Prejudice,” and the “Dark Ghetto,” scattered on the table in front of her, Dye explained her passion for protecting the children in her office at the center.

She said, “A child’s life should be filled with creativity, filled with love, caring, nurturing. It’s a time when you can enjoy life, and children should enjoy life, and so, to be beset by all the trouble and low self-esteem and conflict–I think children ought to be protected.”

She’s worked at Harlem Hospital and the Upper Manhattan Community Mental Health Center and has more than 20 years experience as an administrator, psychologist, supervisor, clinician and researcher. Dye attended Cornell University and the Yeshiva University. She has served on the mayor’s Children’s Week Committee and the Commissioner’s Child and Adolescent Task Force Service Committee, along with a number of boards and other advocacy work.

The Northside Center for Child Development on 35 East 110th street, off Madison, provides psychotherapy for children, families, adults and teens with little to no cost to the families, who mostly come from low-income households.

The center, which Dye is looking to expand in the near future, has teen programs in which youngsters can receive psychotherapeutic therapy services, groups work with the Museum of African Art, recreational activities, after-school programs, special-needs programs for children with developmental delays and even a Head Start program at another site.

The mother of two children in college, Dye’s said her journey toward child mental health advocacy started when she was herself a child.

As a frequent babysitter in a big family that included a lot of cousins, Dye recalled visiting someone in a mental hospital when she was young. That experience troubled her and intrigued her. She doesn’t remember who she visited, but she remembered the way the mental hospital looked and felt. She said at that time, mental hospitals weren’t the most friendly of places, so it was there that she wanted to make her imprint on the world. She wanted to help alleviate the stigmas associated with mental issues and diseases in the most precious members of society: the children.

Dye said it was actually one of the things that Dr. Kenneth Clark advocated for as well. She said, “It’s our job to protect and respect them [because] that ensures humanity, our basic humanity.”

She elaborated. “I think that children, unfortunately, can bear too much of a burden for the ills of society. I think that children are strong and children are resilient, and I think our children are some of the strongest most resilient children, meaning the children of our community,” she said as she drew her hands together to point at herself. “So we have children that are always smiling and laughing even though they’re dealing with so many things.”

At Northside, “We find a way to help them sort through issues that allow them to smile and laugh and know that you have to keep pushing because tomorrow’s going to come; there’s going to be something good in tomorrow, one way or another.”

For more information on the Northside Center or to find out how to help the center find new space, call (212) 426-3412 or visit their website at www.northsidecenter.org.