When four year-old Prya walks in the door and sees a coat hook with her name on it, she knows she is home. Or at least at her second home. In case she harbors any doubts, the toddler can gaze up at her framed photo gracing the hallway or melt into a welcoming hug from Val, her mom-away-from-mom.
Val Waletich has had a daycare for 29 years and greeted moms from two generations – over 500 in all – and their youngsters. She says she garners inspiration from her faith and the working mother who always must wear so many hats. She compares having a daycare to “hosting a birthday party every day in your home.” Not for everyone, and certainly not for anyone who was standing behind the door when God handed out patience.
But, Val has a a couple of special things tucked away in her toolkit. She has an early childhood elementary education degree from Moorhead State University, and a secret weapon. Her secret weapon she learned from her mom who raised nine kids. “All she had to do was give us that look,” Val says. (You know the one;) Now, Val uses that look with similar results or just snaps her fingers.
She insists kids like boundaries and says, “If you don’t create boundaries and then get angry, kids have no idea why you are angry. They can’t understand what they did wrong.” She says she gets the children to behave because she is always consistent and follows through. “After the first warning, they might not be allowed to go to the park or they suffer a time out, which is usually sitting on the step for two minutes.”
How do you keep seven toddlers busy and happy all day from 7:30 am- 5:00 pm? The Waletich’s basement is dedicated to the daycare. There’s a cozy spot with a sofa to read a Little Critter or a Spot book and stations for exploring and learning. The kids learn to tell time, write their name, and, of course, to play. She thinks play is a valuable lesson in socialization, and a skill that lasts a lifetime.
She also introduces the kids to electronics. If they choose, they can use a device for half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the afternoon. They understand there is a time limit. She says, ” Electronics have definitely become the young child’s language.” They also create art or a craft, have rest time, and lunch.
Val prepares their food Monday through Thursday, and Friday serves as picnic day all year round. On picnic day, the kids bring their favorite food.
Val’s entrees are nutritious, but geared towards tiny taste buds: chicken nuggets, french toast sticks, grilled cheese, pizza, and noodles. She has slathered peanut butter and jelly on thousands of sandwiches over the years, but also keeps up with the times and sometimes serves an Uncrustable. She thinks they are probably the little one’s favorite food. (Although, they seem to go through dozens of faux doughnuts baked by the tiny chefs in the mini kitchen in the basement. The best in town and free of calories and sugar!)
Val says she keeps her meals intentionally simple so she can spend more time teaching the ABCs instead of standing in the kitchen making ABC soup. “I believe in nourishing the children in many ways. So, we always pray before their meals.”
Years ago, she began compiling a list of 10 things she would like the kids to learn before they graduate and go to kindergarten. “Not requirements, just important things I want them to know how to do, such as tying their shoes, riding a bike, and learning to swim. I feel it is important when a child has a sense of accomplishment and has had to work for it. And, I feel if the kids don’t learn these things, then I’m not doing my job.” A job? True. But most would agree it’s always been a labor of love.
Back in 1990, Val was working at St. Bernard’s Hospital and planning her wedding, when she realized the first floor of Angela Hall next to the hospital wasn’t being used. She and five co-workers got the green light to start a daycare there, but they received no funding. They decided to go ahead anyway. At first it was only for hospital employees, but eventually it opened to others. That center could hold 51 kids including Ron and Val’s three children; David, Zach and Britta.
When Angela Hall was demolished about 10 years ago, 20 kids suddenly had nowhere to go when their parents headed to work. Val opened her home.
She has seven children enrolled – all between nine months and four years old. She limits enrollment and typically takes just one or two babies to give herself the freedom to teach more and remain active. In the summer, she employs high school helpers who are alumni of the daycare. Her husband, Ron, not only pitches in, he has always been her biggest supporter and helper.
Ron, who is also licensed, gives wagon rides to the park and goes on field trips to Hartford Beach, the outdoor pools in Watertown and Ortonville, The Children’s Museum, the library, and the bakery. He says he still loves every minute of it. He has worked at Valley Queen for about 39 years, but says, ” When I get home from the cheese factory and the kids come running to the door and throw their arms around my knees, it’s the best feeling in the world! It makes it all worth it.”
He once took a colicky baby under his wing. Val described the infant as “colicky times 100.” “The baby cried all day and it lasted an entire year, but Ron came home with open arms and rescued me. His work at Valley Queen ended at two-thirty and he took care of the crying baby until five. He could have been out mowing the lawn or practicing with the ball team, but he stayed with the screaming baby.”
Val says, “but Ron’s patience with him made the difference for everyone.” Years later, Ron and the young man still share a deep bond. Ron even often attends his sporting events.
Texting makes Val’s job more fun. She often takes a minute to send a mom or dad an update or a video. That way, she says, “When the parent comes to pick up their child, they are already caught up on what happened that day. Last week, when a couple of children drew pictures of their grandpa’s tractors. I took a quick photo and sent it to the grandparents.”
With a heavy heart, Val decided this would be the first year in over 20 years she and her kids would not be sending singing telegrams on Valentines Day for the Great Western Cancer Walk Team. The weather is just too terrible. Traditionally, the tots would sing five or six Valentine’s Day songs at area businesses and raise around $500. Today, they celebrated with a Valentine party and played games, ate snacks, and exchanged Valentines.
And though the weather dashed their plans today. Val is rarely closed on snow days. She knows parents still have to get to their jobs. “If they can make it here and get in the driveway,” she said, “I’m open!” Open door, open arms, and open heart!