Finding Rewards in Home Care
- Name of program: Ms. Darla and Friends.
- Location: North Richland Hills, Texas.
- Children served: From birth through age 5 from northeast Tarrant County.
- Average cost: $90 per week up to 18 months; $70 over 18 months.
- focus: A preschool educational program called High Reach Learning, special holiday activities, music, Bible verses, lunch, two snacks, and an afternoon nap.
North Richland Hills, Texas
The joys and frustrations of Darla Mitchell's 20-year career as a family-child-care provider are captured in 2-inch-thick photo albums of birthdays and holiday parties. Her proudest moments are recorded on home videos of a graduation program she presents for her children's families every spring.
All those memories bring meaning to the daily toil of changing diapers, whipping up meals that meet federal nutritional guidelines, and planning educational activities filled with music and movement for the nine young children in her care.
Watching the video of last year's spring production, modeled after the Vacation Bible School programs she attended as a child, she remembers how much she dreads speaking in front of the roughly 80 parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors who attend the annual event to watch the young performers.
"When I'm doing this, I start thinking about the kids, and I get emotional, and then my voice starts to crack," Mitchell said. "This is about making the parents stop and think that their kids are not going to be this age ever again."
From 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, only the living room in this suburban Fort Worth house is off-limits. The children spend most of their time in the family room, where toys are stacked on shelves and colorful cutouts on the wall announce each child's birthday.
Known to the children--and their parents--as Ms. Darla, Mitchell offers her 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds a ready-made curriculum from the High Reach Learning company in Arden, N.C.
A border, filled with the faces of horses, cows, pigs, and goats, frames the doorway into the family room, reminding the children of this month's theme, "on the farm." Songs, stories, and even the morning snack--biscuits and jam--reinforce the lesson.
"Why do pigs roll in the mud?" Mitchell asks the children. "It keeps them cool."
Mitchell also cares for a 9-month-old and two toddlers who fiddle with toys during the morning "school time," often pausing to watch the six older children as they dance around the La-Z-Boy recliners pretending to be elephants or helicopters. Two of the younger children are siblings of Mitchell's preschoolers.
In addition to her regular rates, Mitchell charges parents a $10 per-month curriculum fee for her program, but that doesn't cover the costs of all the materials, toys, and special activities she plans, such as her recent hiring of a $100 clown to cap off a circus theme month and the moonwalk ride she rents every Easter.
Ms. Darla and Friends, as she calls her program, almost never has openings, and she's never had to advertise. Satisfied parents serve as her referral agency.
Susan Cline, who put her son Tyler into Mitchell's program when he was 9 months old, recently pulled the 5-year-old out to enroll him in a sought-after private kindergarten run by a local junior college because she thought he would benefit from being around more children his own age. Cline, however, wants Tyler to return to Ms. Darla's this summer and to continue going there after school when he enters public kindergarten this fall.
"She's very firm but very loving," Cline said. "Some of those things are missed in regular day-care settings."
Mitchell entered the formal family-child-care system in Texas when a cousin turned her in for operating without a license. But instead of being bitter, she's grateful for what turned out to be the beginning of a more professional, more rewarding career. One training course led to the next. She now is a co-president of her local provider association and also has earned accreditation from the National Association for Family Child Care.
While her attachments to the children are strong, she's worked hard not to get too involved in the families' lives.
"I have come long strides in that department," she says. "I've had connections with kids that I've stayed up nights worrying about."
She attends training sessions several times a year but says some of that becomes redundant.
"There's only so many ways to change a diaper," she says. "A lot of it is just common sense."
Mitchell says she derives a lot of satisfaction just from socializing with other providers and by staying in contact with the children and their parents years after they've left her program.
"Child care is definitely a parent-provider partnership and feeling appreciated is a big motivator," Mitchell says.
She wishes, however, that more parents would ask about her credentials when they visit for an interview. "Mainly, it's do you have an opening, when can I start, and how much do you charge?" she says.
About a year ago, she gave herself a raise, she says, by expanding from a family-child-care home to a group home, meaning that she can care for as many as 12 children, depending on their ages.
Mitchell doesn't object to the licensing guidelines set by the state but believes the inspectors should have been home-child-care providers themselves at some point.
While the provider-child ratios are much larger in Texas than in some other states, Mitchell doesn't feel as if she's taking care of too many. Even when she's fixing their lunches, she knows if the older children are trying to spook each other in the darkened hallway or if the baby has crawled behind a chair looking for toys. The size of the group, however, doesn't allow her to spend any one-on-one time with the children.
She finally sits down for a break after lunch when all nine children--even the two 4-year-olds--scatter to their respective mats and playpens for a nap.
While she feels overwhelmed once in a while, she's learned that those feelings pass with time.
"I feel like I'm in my prime," Mitchell says. "This will probably carry me on into old age."