SIDNEY — New state regulations regarding pupil transportation are forcing the closure of Tender Hearts, a child care center and preschool at 1611 Wapakoneta Road in Sidney.
Aug. 19 will be the last day the center is open.
According to owners Mary Theis and Kathryn Koester, who are mother and daughter, Tender Hearts has been in operation since 1990, when Theis’s father and stepmother, Willis and Judith Elsass Sollman, opened the business. It’s been family-run for its whole 26 years.
That made the decision to close particularly difficult and painful, Koester said.
“I’m not a crier,” she said. “I’ve given birth to two children and lost three grandparents in one year. But I’ve cried more (over this decision) than in my whole life.”
The closure is based on economics: costs to remain open would increase significantly in January when a new ruling goes into effect.
About 40 percent of the children who attend Tender Hearts are of school age. They arrive at Tender Hearts before school in the mornings when their parents go to work. Tender Hearts staff transport them to school and pick them up again after school. The kids then stay at Tender Hearts until their parents get them after work.
The transport has been by way of 14-passenger vans. But new regulations will require that such transport be by buses, specially equipped with seats and restraints to guarantee the safety of youngsters.
“Even a used bus would cost $30,000, and we’d need three of them,” Koester said. Because the owners have kept their fees — and therefore their profit margin — low, they could not afford to purchase buses. And they made a decision to close rather than to raise fees in order to cover what would be increased expenses, not just for the vehicles, but for gas, maintenance and insurance, as well.
“We can’t, in good conscience, ask people to pay what we feel like they can’t afford,” Koester said.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on being the working man’s preschool for people who work at Walmart, the grocery, the gas station. Every child deserves quality care,” Theis added.
While the owners could have kept the center open until the end of the year, they felt it was not fair to families to have to find alternate care and transportation in the middle of the school year. Therefore, notices were sent last month to give parents six weeks’ notice of the impending closure. Koester has worked to place her 15 employees in new jobs at other childcare facilities. She has also visited area facilities to encourage them to admit the children who have been attending Tender Hearts.
“I don’t want anybody to not be where they need to be next Friday,” Koester said.
The center enrolls about 125 children a week. Some are there all day; some, just before school; others, just after school.
“The hardest part for us in closing is there’s no one to fill the vacuum. We were already struggling in the county for quality daycare. What we have is great. There’s just not enough. (Our) leaving leaves this huge hole. We’re all talking about it: the United Way, the Y are all talking about it,” Koester said.
When they go, Theis and Koester will take special memories with them:
“The kid who’s terrified of storms, so when it’s storming, you walk outside and hold their hand and say, ‘See the beauty of the storm,’” Theis said. “You can’t live in terror every time there’s a storm. Now she’s a parent and she remembers. (Grown-up) kids say all the time, ‘I remember the day when —.’”
The kid who got stuck in the chair: “We have child-sized, educational chairs” with openings in the back, Koester said. “We had a child who got himself stuck in the chair, with his head through the back. We had to strip him naked and coat him in vegetable oil to get him out.”
“A little boy stole the tadpole,” Theis remembered. The school had a live tadpole. Staff hoped the children would get to watch it grow into a bullfrog. But one afternoon, the tadpole went missing. “We know he loves it,” Theis said of the child, “and he was the last one to leave that day. I called the mother and asked her to look around. She called back and said, ‘It’s behind the couch and it’s dead.’ Well, maybe if he hadn’t put it in his pocket … “
And then there was the child who raked his hand through his hair and proudly told the staff, “They say I have headlights.”
Sweet things happen, too. Koester related that one of the kids dropped his cupcake, when there were just enough for each child to have one. So another little child said, “You can have mine.” During an Easter egg hunt, a family arrived too late to participate. Without prompting from adults, all the other children gathered around that family’s little boy to give him some of their candy.
“He ended up with more than anyone else,” Theis said.
Because the center is close to Theis’s home, the children could garden, pick grapes and cherries, and build sunflower houses. During field trips — the school had two every week — they could look for crawdads in Tawawa Park streams or have watermelon seed-spitting contests.
The owners have watched countless childen who met at Tender Hearts go on to become best friends in high school. Mother and daughter routinely attend ballgames, spelling bees and school plays to see “their” children perform. And the children stay in touch as they grow up.
“My mom goes to more graduation parties and weddings,” Koester said.
“They come to my house. They bring their babies to show me,” Theis added. The center has enrolled children of people who were children themselves there in years past. The leaving has been emotional for both women.
“It was the most rewarding job ever and the hardest, but you knew you made a difference,” Theis said.
Neither she nor Koester knows what will come next. The building and the business are for sale.
“The building is zoned commercial. But the business will take someone special. I hope groups get together in town and figure out what to do with that building. That building can still educate kids,” Koester said.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.