In 1983, Bexley resident Diane Bennett began her tenure as executive director of the nonprofit Action for Children agency.

In 1983, Bexley resident Diane Bennett began her tenure as executive director of the nonprofit Action for Children agency.

In her words, much of her time was spent helping families find a baby-sitter.

Today, Action for Children is a multifaceted resource and referral organization and the No. 1 source for early learning and child care for central Ohio families in seven counties, according to agency spokeswoman Kathleen Murphy.

On Oct. 16, Bennett announced her intention to retire, effective with the hiring of her replacement.

Action for Children's board of trustees is conducting a search to find a new CEO with a target date of Feb. 1 or earlier for new leadership to be in place. Search services are being provided free of charge by Cardinal Health.

"I have one of the most rewarding careers in the world, because I am focused on making life better for young children and their families," Bennett said. "We have always known about the curiosity of young children, but now we also understand that 90 percent of brain development occurs before the age of 5. This brings a greater sense of urgency and importance to our work."

"Retirement makes me sound and feel old," she said. "I don't think any of us are ready to stop making a difference in some way, shape or form."

Bennett said she felt "called" to her mission of helping families secure quality child care.

"I had a 3-year-old and had trouble finding my own child care," she said. "It wasn't simply about finding my own child care. It was about every mother out there returning to work having trouble finding appropriate learning experiences, good-quality care, professionalism in the field."

Bennett said the need for child care is about the same as it was 30 years ago.

"This country needs women in the work force and I don't think that has slacked off over the years," she said. "If you look around the community, in various neighborhoods, the supply does not meet the demand -- and it's not only about the access, it's the quality of experience. Have we made progress? Yes. Is there still more to do? Yes."

Bennett has received many awards for her service, including the Visionary Leadership Award from the Ohio Child Care Resource and Referral Association, YWCA Woman of Achievement, and the Metropolitan Human Services Award. Action for Children also received the Champion of Children Award last year.

Bennett's career spans 40 years in human services, 29 at Action for Children.

"Diane has been one of the strongest advocates in this community for young children," said Jeff Cullman, president of the agency's board of trustees. "During her tenure, the organization has tackled the most pressing problems families face -- that is, finding quality child care for their children. Action for Children has not only increased the number of quality child-care slots under Diane Bennett's leadership, but has made significant gains in access to care, professional training and finance reform."

Under Bennett's leadership, the organization grew from $250,000 to $3 million in revenue and became a significant voice for the young child. Through her work at the local, state and national level, Bennett made universal access, finance reform and high-quality early learning a priority.

The landmark Action for Children study, titled "Progress Made, Ground Lost" and released in April 2012, found that for every two children in Franklin County, there is one child-care slot available. When quality is factored in, the ratio jumped to six children for every opening.

While the number of high-quality slots is higher than it's ever been (accreditation and Ohio's star rating system define quality), Bennett is using the study to bring more high-quality programs to neighborhoods where there is a shortage.

Bennett said she plans to spend more time with her children and grandchildren but doesn't rule out some kind of future community involvement.

"I'm going to see what calls to me next," she said. "I'm going to take some time and who knows. I might be a louder voice from the outside. One never knows."

Bennett said she discovered Bexley and the East Side in 1968 as a student at Capital University and never left.

"It just feels like home to me," she said. "I do feel Columbus and Bexley are my home."