Amy Brocato Pearson
Jacksonville Daily Progress
Carol Barnes readily admits she can't pass a toy store without going in to buy something. She thinks Wal-mart is "like a playground when they mark stuff down." And she can also look at each toy in her vast collection and remember a child who lovingly played with it.
Carol looked around one of the neatly organized playrooms at Knee-Hi Village in Jacksonville Tuesday afternoon, just about 24 hours before the child care center would close its doors on 38 1/2 years of business.
She shook her head.
"I'm very sad about this," she murmured.
If the stalwart Fisher-Price castles, the fierce rubber dinosaurs or the small-sized plastic kitchen could talk, they'd tell tales of more than 38 years of love in a child care center that Carol felt she was "destined" to run.
Originally from Jacksonville, Carol and her husband, Marvin, were living in Tulsa, Okla, when their first child, Sharon, was about 13 months old and son David was on the way. Carol started watching a few children in her home so she could stay home with her own babies. When the couple moved to Irving, she watched the neighborhood children there too as hers grew. Carol and Marvin finally made the decision to move back to Jacksonville to help care for their aging parents, and opening a day care center in the city seemed like the right thing to do, Carol said. She had contemplated going back to school to work in the nursing field, but every time she mentioned it to someone, including that she owned and operated a child care center, their response was always, "Oh but that's what Jacksonville needs."
So Carol continued to do what she loved and what Jacksonville needed. Knee-Hi Village could accommodate up to 55 children, but Carol felt about 40 was the right number of kids to love on and care for in the brown building on Canada Street. The day care center started in an building closer to the street, which had once been a daycare and a paint store, until Carol and Marvin built the larger building just behind it. She can't even begin to count the number of children who have passed through her doors, but knows she's cared for the children - and even grandchildren - of her original little charges.
"I just feel like this is what I was intended to do," Carol said.
Knee-Hi Village cared for children from ages 12 months to about 14 years old, but most of her older, after-school care children were ones she'd taken care of since they were, well, knee-high.
"I likened it to coming home to mom or grandma after school," Carol said. "That was the right thing to do."
In fact, three of her 'older' babies were on hand Tuesday, helping Carol sort toys and books to be donated to H.O.P.E, Toys for Tots, and area churches when the day care closed.
Julie Bateman, 13, came to Knee-Hi when she was about 4 years old.
"I always help Ms. Carol with whatever she needs," said the Jacksonville Middle School student. Her brother, Billy Bateman, 9, was there helping too. His favorite part of his years at Knee-Hi was easily the food.
"Lunchtime!" he said. Marvin, the staff, and the kids all started chiming in.
"She makes the best brownies and macaroni and cheese in the universe," Julie piped up.
"Cowboy beans," added Marvin.
"Meatballs," said Billy.
"And chocolate cake for all the employees' birthdays. She always remembers those," said Mary Cannon, who worked at Knee-Hi Village for 36 years.
The day care center is "like family," Mary continued.
"The kids..I just love the kids," she said. "I love taking care of the children of some of the children who were here when I first started."
One of Carol's favorite parts of each day was reading to the children.
"Even the rowdiest of children will be calm for a good book. Their eyes get so wide," she said, naming the "David" series, about a mischievous little boy, as some of her favorites. "I always bring a David book when I read to them."
Marvin started helping out in the center when he retired from being a rural carrier with the U.S. Postal Service about eight years ago. Tuesday he sat quietly, replacing batteries in toys that were to be donated.
"I don't really have any plans for retirement," Carol admitted, but then added she plans to raise the litters of kittens that always seem to proliferate each summer, volunteer at church, H.O.P.E. and the local animal shelter and "I might end up subbing somewhere," she said.
She's thought about retiring a few times before, but it "never felt right."
"I'm going to be 70 in September," Carol said. "Now feels like the right time.
"I'm going to miss my children."