Catherine Hart, nursery director

Catherine Hart is a children's advocate. In a society that is often ill-equipped to listen to their needs, youngsters "can get lost in the shuffle," Hart says.

"I try to be a voice for all my kids," says Hart, 63, an early childhood educator and executive director of the Oak Park & River Forest Day Nursery in Oak Park. "Young children need a voice because each child is so uniquely different, and they can't speak for themselves."

The Day Nursery — started in 1912 in two rented rooms because "working women needed a place to bring their children," Hart says — remains a community resource for working parents. It has been in its current location since 1926.

In addition to child care and preschool, the Day Nursery ( offers a parent education program, with monthly meetings and activities for families. Today it serves 63 children age 2 to 5 from throughout the Chicago area.

Hart has been executive director with the nursery since 1989. She got an undergraduate degree in family life and child development from Northern Illinois University in 1974 and spent 13 years as the director of a child care center in Rockford. She received her master's degree in education in early childhood leadership and advocacy from National Louis University in 1993.

Originally from St. Louis, Hart moved to Chicago's West Side at age 10 with her parents and five siblings; they eventually settled in the Beverly neighborhood, where she still lives.

"There was a 17-year age difference between myself and my youngest sibling," she says. "After I finished high school, my youngest brother got into preschool, and I thought, 'Oh my gosh! Look at what he can do!' I didn't know my ABCs and wasn't counting numbers before kindergarten because I never had preschool. So that's when I knew I wanted to work in early education."

The following is an edited version of our conversation.

Q: Would you say the first day of day care drop-off is harder for the kids or the parents?

A: The parents, probably. I tell parents, "Whatever you do, don't let your child see you cry." Then they will start taking advantage of the parent and make the transition very challenging and difficult. … I tell new parents to expect the first day to be fine, the second day the child will be a little hesitant and expect the third day to be the biggest challenge. The child is going to cry no matter what. If the child sees that you are comfortable, they are going to relax. If they sense that you are not comfortable, they are going to tense up, and that will make your day much more challenging.

One mom came up after dropping her daughter, and she was crying. I asked, "What is wrong?" and she said, "My child is having a royal tantrum." I clicked on the intercom to see if we could hear the cries in the classroom, and we didn't hear anything going on in the classroom. The mom said, "My child 'got me.'"

I told her that in a few weeks, children will start crying when it's time to go home because they will say, "You came too soon." They come in crying and they go out crying. So it's a matter of being compassionate and also being consistent. I find that when we are consistent with the children in terms of what we expect from them, that it really helps them.

Q: Are there stories of children coming back to see you?

A: Ruby Jeffries started out at the nursery at age 3. She was probably our biggest challenge as far as crying. She would cry all through nap time when she was here. She is 20 now and she's in college and is fluent in Spanish. Our Spanish teacher retired, so we called Ruby. Now she's in her second year at DePaul, and she stepped in to be our Spanish teacher because we teach Spanish to all of the children. She is one of our success stories. And she has a core group of friends that met here at the nursery, and every year they get together for their birthdays. I think that's wonderful.

Q: Do you have moments when you know you are making a difference?

A: About 10 years ago, a parent came in to drop off her older child, and she was upset. She had breast cancer. She said she had no place for her youngest child to go, and said she was going to put off treatment until she found a place. I said, "I don't want you to put off treatment. Your health is important to your children. Let's find out what I can do about getting your daughter in here so that you can take care of you." I saw her about four or five months ago. I asked, "How are you doing?" and she said, "We are doing great!" That, to me, made a difference in terms with what was happening with that family.

Q: You allow parents to pay on a sliding scale?

A: Yes. What you're doing is not discriminating against any family. They pay based on their ability, which contributes to the blending of kids. It gives every child an opportunity to make friends, and I notice that the children are not afraid of each other because of their ethnicity or the language barriers. And the parents make friends, which is really great, and there is no snobbery. That's the easiest way to say it: It's not like they can't connect because of income. Families don't know the income of other families — that's private and personal information. So this allows families and children to blend based on friendship and not based on income.

Q: Do you have children?

A: I've never been married and I never had children. But I like to say I've had hundreds of children over the years, so I'm blessed.

Q: Who gave you the best advice growing up?

A: My mom, Aubrey. She's 84 and she is my hero and the person I look up to the most, because she has always been the person who has guided me and given me advice whether I wanted it or not. She was a nurse by profession and she was always there, no matter what. She guided my work values, and church was also very important to us. Even with a full work life and six children, she was always involved. And she would say to me, "You can do it. You have the ability to do it. Just be strong."

Q: What is one of your biggest challenges at the nursery?

A: Getting grants to help us with our funding. If I could have one wish, it would be to have a playground for the children. There is some equipment out there now, but it's old. We need nature out there. We have a small garden, but other than that it's all concrete. We would love to have an outdoor classroom. … So when the children go outside, their eyes get big and they know that they are just going to learn. No matter what they do, they are continuously learning.

Twitter @jenweigel

Drawing inspiration

When Catherine Hart needs to recharge her batteries, she makes time in her schedule to spend a few hours at the salon.

"The perfect way to treat myself is to go get my hair done and get my nails done and then get a chair massage. That's my relaxation. It's nice to have someone take care of you for a change, and people don't do that enough."

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