It takes a village to provide child care.
Bernadette Hicks understands that modified adage more intimately than most.
She owns and operates the ABC Toon Town child-care center — one of the few African-American-owned child-care providers in Oak Park, where she currently lives.
But her child-care center’s selling point isn’t that it’s black-owned, Hicks said.
“We have a mixed community of all races here — Asian, African American, Caucasian,” Hicks said during an interview on July 7, as she and at least 100 other people, including many of her clients, celebrated the center’s 20th year in business (a bounce house was set up for the occasion in the facility’s parking lot).
“It’s a nice melting pot and I’m very proud to say that our program is based on quality, so we sell quality — not the fact that we’re African-American-owned,” she said.
The center, Hicks explained, has a silver rating from ExceleRate Illinois, a prominent quality rating system for child-care providers.
Hicks noted that her center services about 125 young people, age 6 months to 12 years, in a variety of ways — a nursery, preschool, and before- and after-school programs all take place in the center, which employs around 25 people (herself included).
While most of the center’s clients come from the suburbs, Hicks said she also serves children from the West Side.
Through the last 20 years, the center has weathered storms, not least of which is the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis, which spelled doom and gloom for many early childhood providers.
Hicks said ABC has been largely inoculated from the state’s chaos thanks to sound budgeting and because the center doesn’t rely solely on the state. Despite the budget crunch, she pointed out, they haven’t had to lay off anyone or cut anyone’s hours.
The deeper reason for those two decades of salience, though, lies in the center’s moral foundation, laid by her late mother-in-law, Lilla Hicks.
“[We] started in the summer of 1998 and my mother-in-law founded it,” Hicks said. “Before this, she ran a home-based daycare for about 15 years in Oak Park. I’m very honored to continue the legacy that was her vision initially.”
Hicks said her mother-in-law envisioned a center that operated not as a business, but as an extended family.
“This is not transactional,” Hicks said. “We can’t do this without the families, who we consider our partners. We work together as a unit. Nurturing, loving and educating is our culture.”
Joy Ward, the center’s director, said the culture Lilla Hicks incubated decades ago is why she’s been at ABC for 12 years now, starting as a teacher and working her way up to her current position.
“I stayed because of the family environment that I felt when I came here,” Ward said during the anniversary festivities. “We work together and the focus is on the children. That’s very important.”
For some of the center’s parents, that culture is the reason they keep sending their children to ABC.
Two years ago, Cheree Moore was laid off from her job, prompting concerns about how she’d pay for daycare.
“I was laid off for eight months and Ms. Bernie was flexible with us in terms of letting us bring our daughters during the day because it was hard for me to look for a job,” Moore said. “A lot of families need that extra support.”
“I really trust them with my kids,” said Harris.
The center’s village vibe extends to the physical structure. The 15,000-square-foot building, located at 411 South Blvd., was once home to Dorolyn Academy of Music — a venerable tenant in its own right — before ABC moved in last year. Prior to that, the daycare operated out of two facilities on Harrison Street.
Hicks commissioned the prominent Chicago artist Damon Lamar Reed to create murals on both the exterior and interior of the building, brightening up a space that had previously housed standard offices.
The interior, once dark and dated, has been reconfigured, softened and opened to let in more natural light. The space reflects Hicks’ personality, said one of her longtime friends, Gwendolyn Young.
“She’s one of those people who I think everyone should have in their lives,” Young said during the party. “She’s integral, she’s kind, she’s generous, she’s caring. She just has a calming spirit and a genuine love for your child — the whole child.”