After 32 years of providing child day care, Ava Cunningham has seen and heard just about everything from her pre-school charges.
Still, she smiles when asked why she does it.
“I just love kids,” she said. “They’re so innocent. They’re like sponges.”
As Cunningham talks, three 3-year-olds — Valentine and twin sisters Zarayah and Zariah — take turns somersaulting around the floor of her front room in northeast Wichita, combing a Barbie doll’s hair and perusing a children’s book. It’s playtime, a little break before the lunch of goulash and banana-blueberry bread that Cunningham has cooking in the kitchen and the nap that will follow.
“I don’t want them to be behind when they go to school,” she said. “A lot of the big ones” — she’s referring to child care centers — “are closing down.”
According to a report from the state of Kansas, the number of child care providers operating out of private residences fell from 2,915 in 2017 to 2,144 four years later. The decline in numbers was actually steeper prior to the beginning of the pandemic.
Cunningham used to care for as many as a dozen children at a time, but she doesn’t keep babies anymore. “Too heavy and too hard on my back,” she said.
She followed her mother into day care after considering teaching and cosmetology — her father was a barber — as careers. In addition to creating a safe spot where they can play, nap and be fed, Cunningham has turned her home into a mini-preschool with posters and books featuring the alphabet, numbers, animals and more. “They can go and point them out,” she said. “Their mothers are so pleased they know their numbers and letters.”
She hopes to inspire them to dream big, too, when it comes to choosing their own paths in life. It seems to be working. Zariah, asked what she wants to be when she grows up, said: “A princess, or a scientist.” Her sister, Zayariah, replied: “An astronaut or a doctor.”
“I kind of put things in their head,” Cunningham said. “They may change it.”
Then there’s the relational, getting-along thing. Naturally, they held a Valentine’s Day party.
“I’m teaching them to be nice to each other,” Cunningham said.
About that time, the actual Valentine let out a yelp.
“We’re working on that,” Cunningham said.
Operating a day care center out of her home means it looks about like what you’d expect, with a small see-saw, pink toy piano, baskets of books and toys in various states of use in her front room. A pandemic-related grant let her install an impressive playground of a jungle gym, sandpit and more in her backyard. There’s a bounce pit downstairs, and a garden the children help plant and water. In other words, there’s no shortage of diversions, and the garage is full of more toys if anybody runs out. Cunningham said she rarely returns from a trip to the store or garage sale without something for her day care center.
“I just love to see kids having fun. They’ll tell me, ‘Miss Ava, you make me laugh.’”
The ultimate payoff: When parents and the children she’s cared for check back in, like the young woman taking pre-med courses in college.
“Most of the time (the children) come back and I get to see them,” she said.,
“I’ve had parents call me and thank me. That’s my reward.”