After 10 years of building a “remarkable” team at the Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health, Director Gerard “Gerry” Costa is retiring, stepping down effective January 1, 2022.
As he leaves, Costa feels hopeful. “I think our Center and Associate Director Kaitlin Mulcahy and I have played a role in bringing to relevance the importance of the first relationships and the earliest years.”
“More and more people in state government have been receiving federal funding having to do with early childhood and have decided – partly because of our relationship with state systems – to use that money to build infant and early childhood systems surrounding the nature of mental health and relationships,” Costa says. “I do think that more and more state governments are getting the message. More and more federal initiatives are getting the message.”
Katrina Bulkley, acting dean of the College of Education and Human Services says the University is grateful for Costa’s passion and dedication for helping children and infants. “Through his tireless contributions, he built a strong foundation for the continued growth of programming and advocacy,” Bulkley says.
Costa notes the Center’s working relationship with multiple state agencies and departments, including the departments of Children and Families, Human Services, Health, and Education. “It’s not only our opportunity, it’s our obligation to really help create a new and better society.”
Regarding his successor, Kaitlin Mulcahy, Costa calls her a “remarkable” and “gifted person,” and adds, “It’s really time for her to be in the position of leadership. I always tell people, Kaitlin is the reason I can retire, and I must retire.”
Costa is clearly proud of the progress of the Center, which he has led since its inception in 2011 and which has grown with the help of Mulcahy and others over the years.
He notes that the Center started with just three staff members in 2011 and has grown to a current total of 71 (55 professional staff and 16 students) in 2021, while garnering more than $25 million in revenue from grants and donors in the past 10 years.
At a farewell presentation earlier this month, Costa called the Center “a thought-leading” institution focused on infant and early childhood mental health and developmental differences: “We envision a world where all infants, toddlers and children are surrounded by loving relationships that promote their optimal health and development.”
A major milestone for the Center was the award of an $8 million, five-and-a-half-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education in May 2020 to establish the New Jersey Inclusive Education Technical Assistance (NJIETA) overseen by Costa and the Center, which received the grant along with the New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Education for a project to promote the inclusion of children with disabilities into pre-K through 12th grade general-education classrooms in New Jersey public schools.
Costa also points out the contributions of the Center’s maternal infant health work: “It has led the Center to serve as a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Health, New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy, and as a vital part of the Nurture NJ Strategic Plan, committed to ending systemic inequity in maternal pregnancy and childbirth outcomes by 2030. In 2019 and 2020, over 11 state laws were passed in this domain with legislative testimony provided by this branch.”
Before coming to Montclair State, Costa served as the founding director of the YCS Institute for Infant and Preschool Mental Health and was a past president of the New Jersey Association for Infant Mental Health. The YCS Institute is the first clinical service for families with young children in the state, which continues to serve families with children from pregnancy through age 6 in the communities of Newark, East Orange and Irvington. In addition, Costa worked for more than 30 years to build capacity in the workforce to ensure and enhance the health and well-being of families at the earliest moments of their formation. Read more of Costa’s career highlights here.
In his retirement, Costa will not exactly be idle. (Costa says he doesn’t have an in-between speed: “I’ve got to be active!”) He will continue to act as the president of the Board of Directors of the Interdisciplinary Council on Development and Learning. The Council is now a part of Fielding Graduate University where Costa will sometimes teach. He will also continue to work with the national organization Zero to Three, where he has been consulting for the past 25 years.
On the personal side, Costa says that in addition to spending more time with his family, “I’ve been dying to learn how to play piano, so I’ll be taking lessons. I’m not retiring from life!”
Meanwhile, Costa continues to spread the gospel of early childhood education.
“Even if you don’t have a child, it matters to every single person the quality of what happens in early childhood. So even if you are a senior citizen without a child or grandchild in a school district, you have a stake in ensuring that children are educated. It matters whoever you are.”