Note: The following essay was written on the first anniversary of Our Children’s house by an OCH founding parent. It gives an overview of how OCH began. We hope that upon reading it, you will understand why. It was through our belief that children thrive when surrounded by love that led a small group of parents and teachers to make a dream a reality. We welcome your family to Our Children’s House.
For most families, when their child’s day care is not right, nothing seems right. For a small group of parents, our world changed April 30, 1994 when we picked up our children from Walker Avenue Children’s House, a care center where many had been since age one. All the parents and teachers were standing around looking shocked while the children continued to play busily in the playground. As they arrived to pick up their children, parents were handed a notice that the owners, two working mothers who had founded the small center 11 years ago, had decided to close the center in 60 days and sell the building. We were devastated by the sudden and unexpected news!
The center housed 25 children in an old brick house with a lovely, shady playground in the backyard. Four full-time and two part-time teachers spent their time with all the children, who were not separated by age groups except for an hour a day for “group time”. We and our children had come to love these teachers and the setting. Many of us had children who being cared for who had the same teachers as their older siblings. We had found a reliable, caring, nurturing home away from home for our children and could not imagine it suddenly not existing. Because so many of the parents felt so strongly about the quality of the care our children were receiving, we made a decision to see that it continued. Seven months later we opened Our Children’s House, a brand new, non-profit center at a different location, owned by 11 founding families. We spent over half the year on this project and we will never forget it.
Within days of being notified of the closing, parents and teachers gathered in a warehouse owned by one of the families. We learned that the present owners had spent months considering their options and were not going to change their minds about closing in sixty days. We started asking lots of questions and realized how little we all knew about our options to continue the center. We decided to meet weekly and started dividing up the job of gathering the information we needed.
We learned that it would take thousands of dollars to bring the old house to meet new day care codes. The original owners had been grandfathered in through all of the code changes during their eleven years of operation. If we took over ownership in its present location, we would have to meet all of the new state and local codes that had been put into place during that time. We learned that whoever writes daycare codes in North Carolina had been extremely busy during the last few years.
Due to the code requirements and the costs of renovation, it just wouldn’t work for us to keep the existing building for the school. What was left without the building? The group of parents unanimously agreed that what made our school so valuable to us was not the building but the teachers. This was a skilled, nurturing, creative group of teachers, most of who had been with the school from six to11 years. We even had two teams of mother and daughter teachers. We also wanted to preserve the school’s philosophy of a small, homelike environment with mixed-age groupings. We asked the teachers if they would stay with us instead of seeking new jobs. They all agreed, showing great trust in us, because at that point we had nothing concrete to offer them.
Our next step was to research any potential settings and leasing options for housing a small, child care center. We came so close to moving into one church that we had building and health department inspectors visit to advise us on its ability to serve as our new location. We had a list of all the improvements needed in order to bring it up to code ready to present to the church. But we decided after much discussion and work that our very best option was to build our own building.
After much research, we found a lot for the new building. Some of the parents worked up a rough building plan and cost estimate to show that it could meet our needs despite its small size. We liked the price and the location so with our plan it looked doable. Next we had to find the money to buy the land and build.
One of our parents with strong entrepreneurial skills worked carefully on a proposal and presented it to us at one of our weekly meetings. We could form a limited liability corporation (LLC) to purchase the land, build the building, and rent it at cost to the nonprofit child care center. We needed to raise enough money to cover the down payment, and then the daycare could cover the monthly mortgage payments as rent. It was a high risk investment but the site was in a great location. The idea made sense and each of the eleven families who decided to participate started calculating what they could invest toward the purchase of the land and building.
We passed around small slips of paper and each family wrote the amount they would be willing to invest in the LLC. We waited anxiously as the amounts were tallied. The total was the exact amount we needed! This plan allowed for some families to invest as little as $1,000 and others to invest much more. Several parents borrowed the money that they invested. Others were not in the position to make a financial commitment at that time. The important thing was we would have the money to go forward with the project! This subset of eleven families formed a limited liability corporation, named Time Out Properties.
While the LLC worked out financing arrangements, the larger group of parents formed a completely separate, nonprofit, child care organization called Our Children’s House. One of the parents designed our new logo. We prepared bylaws, established a board and appointed officers. At this point, we had created our school in name and concept.
We had to vacate Walker Avenue by July 1. We moved into a temporary spot in a church that closed its preschool during, the summer. We had to have that site licensed for our group, even though it was only available for five weeks. So, while we were working on cleaning and fixing up our interim site for the summer and developing plans for a permanent child care center, we were also looking for another temporary site somewhere in town for use from late August through November. It was very touch and go but we finally found another church that had space and was willing to rent to us on a temporary basis. We began the licensing process a second time.
Going through the licensing process is enough to discourage anyone from opening, a daycare. Our center director and the licensing committee spent countless hours coordinating with city, county and state inspectors, church administrators, and repair and cleaning folks. For example, the night before the final inspection, teachers and parents spent the evening deep cleaning the church kitchen to get it to pass inspection by the health department. We had already paid a professional to clean, but a preliminary look by an inspector told us that among other items, the refrigerator didn’t shine enough, the walls weren’t clean enough and the water wasn’t hot enough to run a dishwasher that we would never even use. Ironically, because of the codes, the children would never enter the kitchen and food would not be prepared for them there, but it still had to be spotless for us to get licensed. Deadlines were critical and we all got grouchy at times.
By mid-July, we felt an intense urgency to close on the land and start building. We hired a contractor and architect and found a bank to finance us. The day before we were to close on the land, the bank we had planned to work with backed out on us. Miraculously, within 24 hours, we found another lender, got approval on the loan, and met our appointment to close the deal with the property owners.
We held a groundbreaking ceremony on August 6, two weeks before moving from one temporary site to the other. We had spent a lot of time on this project so far, and our children in most cases had trouble understanding what we were doing, other than knowing that their parents were away from home or on the phone a lot. This was our chance to show them and our extended families what we were creating. At the groundbreaking, the kids rode a Bobcat backhoe, and enjoyed face painting and other games. We ate a house-shaped cake made by one of the teachers, broke a piñata, and planted a tree. The children presented the teachers with bouquets of wild flowers, and a parent wrote and performed a song about Our Children’s House. We had a great day on our new land. If the younger children still didn’t quite understand what Our Children’s House was going to be, at least they saw that it involved fun things and they had a song to sing about it. They finally started to understand what all this talk had been about and we all got excited.
Through September and early October, we watched the building go up. Teachers and parents worked with the architect to come up with a design that would meet daycare codes, allow for the mixed-age environment, fit on the small lot and keep costs at a minimum. Building plans had to be approved by numerous city officials including the person who makes sure you plan to have a sufficient number of shrubs and canopy trees in the front yard.
During this time, several parents worked daily with the contractor, others worked on developing the personnel manual and parents’ handbook, planned for the interior of the building, conducted marketing and fundraising and re-wrote budgets every week. We continued to meet weekly as a group sometimes until midnight or 1:00 a.m. We also continued to go to work at our full-time “day” jobs.
Meanwhile, the teachers were real troopers about working under less than desirable conditions at our interim church location. Some children moved on to kindergarten, but even one of those families stayed actively involved in the entire project. Because of space limitations, we could only house 18 children at the interim site and could not afford to keep all the teachers on payroll. One teacher volunteered not to work for that period, and kept her two grandchildren who were enrolled at the school at home with her. With fewer teachers, however, we needed parents to fill in during the first and last hours of the day in order to maintain our “AA” licensing ratios. So, parents got CPR training and took TB tests, and began to help the teachers as they needed.
The marketing committee developed and distributed a brochure (we had a parent who was a copywriter and one who was a graphic designer), placed ads, listed us in the yellow pages, and worked with the media to get the word out about the center to fill the vacant spots we would have upon opening. We planned to grow from the interim total of 18 children to 29 shortly after opening. We were pleased with the coverage we received from the newspaper and TV stations.
One of our biggest challenges in starting up this operation was the financing. As Time Out Properties, we had bought the land and got a bank to finance the building. But the nonprofit organization, Our Children’s House, had to up-fit the building for an AA licensed child care. We spent several depressing meetings discussing the fact that we didn’t have enough money to do this. We considered taking out a loan for the up-fitting, but were concerned about including the monthly loan payments in our operating budget. That would leave us with no extra money to save for contingency needs or to give the teachers health care benefits. Running a small, high-quality child care center is not a profitmaking., venture. We decided we had to take out the loan, but would work to reduce the balance through fundraising.
Our fundraising committee went all out. We held the whopper of all yard sales in October, which included items donated by over 50 families and businesses. This sale was lots of fun and brought in $2,800! We also received donations from grandparents and alumni, held a book and bake sale, wrote grant proposals (and got a $4,000 grant from the Greensboro Jaycees). We raffled off prizes donated by local merchants, and solicited services and materials at reduced cost for the building. The entire fire alarm system was donated and installed free by the brother of one of our parents. Local business donated the printing of the brochure, loads of toys and art equipment, all internal hardware, paint, and even the fabric for our curtains.
In late October the building was up and ready for the parents and teachers to do the finishing work. While other families spent fall weekends doing their own yard work and chores, many in our group let the chores at home go undone so they could participate in “parent work days”. One of the parents had once been a professional painter. He supervised parents and teachers in painting the entire interior of the building. Another parent had designed the kitchen (meeting, code here was a real challenge) and ordered all of the commercial equipment. Another couple owned a landscaping company and donated all of the bushes, pine needles, grass, and trees and supervised us in planting. Another parent, who had no prior experience in this area, designed and supervised the building of the playground.
One family owned a moving and storage company that handled our many moves, and collected and stored items for our yard sale. Still another parent, the same one who rewrote the budget every week, and handled all of our finances, put together the swing sets and spent both days every weekend for over a month working on the playground, painting, staining, and landscaping.
Throughout the whole process the group dynamics were intense. This group got to know each other quickly through long agonizing discussions and committee work. We were a relatively small group for such a big project. We each served on several committees and each committee was very small. We were a diverse group of parents with varying levels of education and income. Although we laughed a lot and enjoyed becoming much like a big family, there were disagreements, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and there were many moments when we had to ask ourselves if the work involved didn’t outweigh the potential benefits.
Our president organized meetings, developed list after list of things to discuss at meetings and things to be done between meetings. She spent countless hours on the phone with teachers, parents, media, prospective parents and potential donors asking for support and resolving problems. She kept us going when we just didn’t feel up to it or thought we had things covered when we really didn’t.
We’re not sure how we ended up with a group of parents so perfectly matched to this challenge. The entrepreneur, the graphic artist, the copy writer, the painter, the teacher, the moving and landscaping companies, the bakers, the lawyer, the accountant, the event organizers, the woodworkers, the fund-raisers, the grant writers, and the public speakers. The list seemed to be endless. Perhaps because each of us moms and dads had developed a career, we were a particularly skilled group of parents. But then we also found ourselves doing things we had not done before during the project. The resourcefulness of the group and the way we were able to make things happen amazed and delighted us all.
There was a magic in this group. The magic was how each of us swallowed our pride over and over for the good of the whole, how no one walked out for good when they felt hurt, but came back willing to work even harder. Every time there was a seemingly insurmountable problem, someone drew on their resources and skills to come up with a solution. The magic came from the strength of our commitment and the overwhelming, difficulty of our task. If our goal had been less challenging, it just wouldn’t have been the same. If as a 7oup we had been less committed, it would never have happened. Our dream and our faith in that dream becoming reality was bigger than any of our individual needs. Our dream was, as working parents, to be able to give our children something wonderful and special. We were all parents willing to go the extra mile to make sure our children spent their days at a very special home away from home.
The week before we moved to our beautiful new building, our director lined up new children to fill our vacant spots. We hired additional teachers needed to keep up with our new enrollment size. The children started singing about Our Children’s House and talking about the move. We got our license and we moved all of our furniture and toys in. We hung bulletin boards, put up shelves and wallpaper and shined our floors. The night before we opened, we held a party for all the families so the new children and parents could get acquainted and so we could celebrate.
All of our long meetings, intense discussions, weekend work and, most of all, our commitment to a dream paid off on November 28, 1994, when we opened Our Children’s House. The first day we had TV cameras and reporters there. Those of us who had become like family welcomed new faces. There was a dreamlike quality for the parents and teachers who had seen it grow. The children loved their new school, and had no trouble adjusting.
At this writing, Our Children’s House is getting ready to celebrate its first anniversary. It is beginning to sink in that we did the unbelievable. We are very proud and pleased. Most importantly to all of us, we learned that when you harness the love for your children, there is no limit to what you can do. We hope that we have set an example for our children that will mean a lot to them someday.