A century-long labor of love

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

One hundred years ago, with a couple of young children cared for in two small rental rooms at 332 Lake St. in Oak Park, the Elizabeth Charlton Day Nursery was born at Hephzibah Home.

In those pre-WWI years, several socially conscious women saw the need to provide affordable, full-time, quality care for the young children of single mothers who needed to work as domestics in Oak Park to support their families financially. For them, child care cost 5 cents per child, per day, and included lunch, as well as kindergarten for the older kids.

The organization's namesake was a local philanthropist. But, in 1926, the name changed to the Oak Park & River Forest Day Nursery when architect Charles E. White designed a new site at 1139 Randolph, the nonprofit's current location.

In 2002, the Tudor Revival "home" became a historic landmark in Oak Park, joining the long list of others, which includes the Oak Park Post Office, the North Branch Library (Dole), and Cheney Mansion, which were also designed by White.

Archived records document that, during the early years, the Day Nursery actually became a clearinghouse, of sorts, for working mothers interested in picking up extra hours of employment in Oak Park homes. These women, whose children were enrolled at the Day Nursery, would ask the matron to field inquiries for them from potential employers who were "in need of a laundress or housework of any kind," say newspaper articles, courtesy of the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest.

In 1920, Mrs. John M. Myer, the retiring president of the Elizabeth Charlton Day Nursery Association proclaimed (in a press release): "The children who come to the nursery are the children of working mothers, all of who are employed in Oak Park. We all concede that it is wrong for the mothers of small children to be away from their homes to earn a living, but the wrong exists, and until the wrong is made right, day nurseries are a public necessity."

In wartime, during the week, many of the children were on the premises 24/7, to accommodate their mother's long work days, so the Day Nursery became a haven for them, says Catherine Hart, the long-time executive director.

Nowadays, people's perceptions about working women, and the number of women who work, has dramatically changed and grown, as has the proliferating need for working families to find quality child care in their communities.

"When I came on 23 years ago, the agency was struggling. I maximized the state contract and stabilized the family fees, making sure that the fee structure kept up with the economy, while also making sure the diversity of the agency was balanced, economically, as well as socially," Hart says. "We provide them with full-time, quality child care, which has always been our mission."

Looking back and forward

Recounting her days as a student at the Day Nursery, board member Sanita Lewis, 33, becomes "warm and fuzzy." She says the decision to enroll her daughter, Olivia, at her "alma mater" was a clear choice. It was an environment that offered peace of mind, while her daughter received a great early start for school.

"When I would come and pick Olivia up, she was always on a teacher's lap, being read to, singing a song, or laughing with them," says the single, working mom who resides with her daughter in Forest Park. "I always knew that she was in a safe and loving environment, and I was always at ease."

Peggy Hill, 70, began working as a teacher at the Day Nursery in 1977. Now semi-retired, she continues to enjoy her time in the classrooms, especially reading Wilhelmina Harper's story, The Gunniwolf, to each new crop of kids. Over the years, she says, the interactive storytime selection continues to captivate and hold the preschoolers' interest when, with assistance from her, the youngsters lightly pound their chests to produce the "hunkercha" sounds of the wolf running after the little girl, and playfully singing "kum kwa ki wa," chant, the memorable Gunniwolf song.

Lewis interjects that in recent years she has seen a shift away from grandparents being available to watch their children's children.

"My mom works [in property management], and she can't stay home. I think this is happening to a lot of people. But I also think the Day Nursery is comparable to having a family member watch your child," says Lewis. "In addition to that, Olivia learned everything she needed to enter kindergarten, and it prepared her. "This place was founded in love and it continues that way … and I couldn't agree more. For me, that is the way to describe the Day Nursery."

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