Michael Contreras, a Sacramento child care provider and volunteer coach who mentored children and parents alike for more than 35 years, died July 10 of lymphoma. He was 63.
Contreras, who in 1994 was awarded “Provider of the Year” by the Sacramento Child Care Coalition, took care of thousands of children during his lifetime. From 1976 to 1988 he worked in the North Sacramento School District’s day care and summer camps for K-6 aged children.
In 1988, he began working for the city of Sacramento’s 4th “R” after-school recreation program, first at Bret Harte Elementary School in Curtis Park and later as the founding director of the 4th “R” at Phoebe Hearst Elementary School in East Sacramento. He retired in 2012.
Through the programs he ran, a generation of local parents got to know Contreras as a strict but loving teacher with a magnetic personality and a talent for French-braiding children’s hair. Contreras’ son, Toby Contreras, recalled childhood memories of staying at a day care hours after closing as his father dispensed advice to other parents.
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“For a lot of these kids, he was like a second father,” said Eileen Van Assen, program developer of the 4th “R” at Phoebe Hearst Elementary.
Contreras was passionate about athletics, both in his own life and in children’s. He was an avid sportsman who ran the Boston Marathon and the California International Marathon and also enjoyed boxing and cycling. And he coached numerous local children’s sports teams and volunteered as a field manager for the East Sacramento Little League.
“He was often my coach formally or informally,” Toby Contreras said. “He taught me the concepts of fair play and sportsmanship. … He was just a really calm presence that had a really strong moral sense.”
Like many of the parents and children from Contreras’ day care programs, the kids he coached often remained close with him for years afterward. Ingrid Kantola, who played on Contreras’ Old Sacramento Little League girls’ softball team when she was in middle school, said he asked about her life long after she stopped playing.
Kantola, now the owner of a crossfit gym in Austin, said Contreras had “a genuine heartfelt concern for others.” She went on to work for Contreras’ 4th “R” for her first summer job in high school and college.
“As a boss he was the same as he was as a coach,” she said. “He cared about what we had going on in our lives.”
Contreras grew up in North Sacramento, graduating from Grant High School in 1970. He had two children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce. In 1991, he married again, this time to Suzanne Contreras, who also worked in the 4th “R” program. He and Suzanne Contreras had one child.
“We met on a field trip, of all things,” Suzanne Contreras said. “I fell in love with him the first time I met him. There wasn’t anything to dislike about him.”
She remembered her husband’s unabated positivity even as he got cancer in his last four years.
He was not the kind of person who ever talked about himself or his illness,” said King Smith, one of several Curtis Park residents whom Contreras became friends with more than 20 years ago when taking care of their children in 4th “R.”
Contreras remained active through his illness, visiting the gym before dawn every day until his final weeks.
“People would come up and say, ‘Hey Mike, whatcha training for now?’ ” Suzanne Contreras said. “He just coined this little slogan that was so perfect for him, ‘I’m training for life.’ ”
Contreras is survived by his wife Suzanne; children Toby, Michelle and Daniel; and grandchildren Wyatt and Mason.
His funeral will be held 11 a.m. Saturday at Calvary Catholic Cemetery, 7101 Verner Ave. A mass will take place at 10 a.m.