Mom's vision becomes a caring reality

The Baltimore Sun

When Lisa Shelton had a young child, she couldn't find affordable day care she liked. So she asked her mother to retire to take care of her daughter while she returned to school.

Some years later, armed with an undergraduate degree from Villa Julie College and a business degree from the Johns Hopkins University, Shelton set out to create the sort of dream center she would have loved as a young parent. Yesterday, Sandi's Learning Center, a nonprofit organization that offers day care, an after-school program and a summer camp for up to 180 children from 6 weeks to 6 years old, held a grand opening in its new $3 million facility in the Rosemont-Walbrook community. It is the only accredited day care center in its ZIP code.

"As an MBA, most times, the goal is to be entrepreneurial," said Shelton, who worked as an analyst at Northrop Grumman Corp. before quitting to be a full-time day care provider. "But it all started fitting together. ... You have to do it because you have the heart for it."

The center, which is named after Shelton's 16-year-old daughter and primarily serves low-income families who qualify for government day care vouchers, was brought into existence through Shelton's will and her ability to attract about $2 million in funds. Grants were provided by the state education and housing departments, the General Assembly, the city of Baltimore, Wachovia Bank, and a host of nonprofits, including the Abell Foundation, Associated Black Charities, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the Ron Diggs Foundation and the France-Merrick Foundation. Baltimore provided $600,000 for the center in community development bond funds.

Yesterday, state and city leaders and other well-wishers crowded into an upstairs room for an opening ceremony, complete with a performance of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" by a gaggle of grinning preschoolers and testimonies about Shelton's persistence.

"Whether she's happy or upset, she still has that smile, and you still have to do what she wants you to do," said Del. Shawn Z. Tarrant, a Baltimore Democrat who represents the 40th District, where the center is located.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said after the ceremony, "Statewide, only 5 percent of those eligible for child care are in facilities of this quality. Just think what it means to this community and these children."

Sandy Fallin, the executive director of the Baltimore City Child Care Resource Center, said accredited programs - which must employ staff with a certain education level and meet other requirements - are always welcome in Baltimore, including in the Rosemont area, which has a high concentration of low-income families.

"There's always a need for quality care," she said in a phone interview. "We have quantity, but we don't always have the kind of care parents need. Infant care, in particular, is much needed."

According to Fallin, Baltimore has 17 child care centers accredited by the State Department of Education or the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Twelve other home-based family child care providers are accredited by another national association.

Shelton, 41, began her journey in 2002, while in graduate school. She was working on a paper about education and decided to visit some of the child care centers in the Rosemont neighborhood. She was disappointed with what she saw and began to wonder how she could make a difference.

Ultimately, she purchased a rowhouse, refurbished it and began her own day care center for 20 children. In 2004, she received nonprofit status and purchased an apartment complex a couple of blocks away from the original location. Eventually, that building was torn down to make way for a 15,000-square-foot building with multiple playrooms, classrooms, a kitchen and a computer room. The new center, which opened on North Ellamont Street in March, employs 16 full-time staff members and has so far enrolled 103 children.

The center will also house a therapeutic nursery for infants and toddlers whose families were formerly homeless. That program, PACT: Helping Children With Special Needs, has a classroom at the center but is separately managed and funded. It will likely open within a week.

Yesterday, the preschoolers ate hot dogs, salad, fruit and strawberry ice cream in one room while the 2-year-olds napped and the babies listened to the children's song "The Wheels on the Bus" and gazed at a crayon mobile.

"The teachers are wonderful and very nice. They treat our kids like they're theirs," said Wiltina Bultman, the mother of a 2-year-old and the president of the center's parent advisory council. "It's hard to find a place to send your kids to that's a safe environment. Here, I feel like I'm dropping her off at Grandma's house."

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