On a sunny spring day, the children at Lill Leroux’s home child care in Commerce City race around on new metal trikes. Not far from the flea market and industrial sites, Leroux’s home is an oasis for children. A blue boat-shaped sandbox beckons them to set sail in their imaginations wherever the spring breeze might take them.
Leroux, 37, has just gotten a miniature potting table. She loves getting her hands in the mud with the kids. They are planting some seeds and watching them grow. These days, Leroux, herself, is like a spring flower, poking through the earth, proud and colorful after three years of coaching and assistance from Qualistar Early Learning.
“I’ve done better than I ever would have managed on my own. I honestly wouldn’t have what I have today if it wouldn’t have been for Qualistar,'” said Leroux of the program supported by The Colorado Trust. Specifically, Qualistar promotes high-quality, child-centered education and care. Ratings help parents find quality care and inspire caregivers to improve their programs.
Joanne Dalton worked with Leroux as a quality improvement coach for the Clayton Foundation’s Early Childhood Resource Institute. “People are realizing that these are not just children,” she said. “These are future citizens. We’ve got to invest in them.”
Dalton explained that, before Qualistar, there were no uniform ratings. “People thought you could go find a 4-star program like you can find a five-star restaurant. People were shocked that that didn’t exist.”
Qualistar gave Leroux the lift she needed. She never lacked the can-do spirit, but she didn’t know how to make her center more safe and stimulating. Leroux struggled with learning disabilities in school; she finished high school, but not college. At 19, she bought the HUD house behind her parents’ home for $48,000. At 23, she had her daughter; a year later, she opened her center.
Leroux said the TV used to be on a lot. She didn’t know the best ways to design her rooms or select optimal toys, like wooden blocks, that children could use a million different ways. Out back, she had pea gravel beneath her plastic slides and castles. Kids would sometimes eat the rocks or put them in their noses. And, until Qualistar helped her, there was no fence out front. Leroux had to supervise the children every second to make sure they didn’t dart into the street.
Leroux was scared when she first applied to work with Qualistar—in fact, she almost quit. But when she opened her home to inspectors, she received coaching, scholarships for continuing education, up to $10,000 in new materials and an unexpected bonus: a new circle of friends. Once a month, Leroux still meets with a group of home care providers even though they all graduated in 2005. These women helped her survive her anguish when a contractor took thousands of dollars without finishing the expansion of Leroux’s center.
At last, the project is nearly done. In what was once her garage, the 12 children in Leroux’s center will bask in a large, sun-splashed room. Art supplies and age-appropriate toys will be easy to reach, and there will be plenty of puzzles and books.
Then Leroux will begin her next project: mentoring another home provider. “I was so thankful for how much we learned,” she said. “I feel we all have room for improvement.”