The year was 1970, and a young mother with a six-month-old daughter was faced with the dilemma of going back to work outside the home. She had very few options for child care or a decent job, and with a husband going to school on the GI bill, things were tight. They often had to depend on food stamps. There were no such things as child care centers or registered day care home providers, and job opportunities for women were very limited. Eventually she found a babysitter and a job taking classified ads for a trade publication. She was paid $1.85 per hour (minimum wage at that time) and she drove to work in tears every morning because she knew her daughter would spend the day in a playpen in a darkened living room where several other children sat in front of a flickering t.v. screen most of the time.
That young mother was Holly Hansel Kamm, founder of Early Learners. Her anguish – and anger – about the complete absence of good choices for her and her daughter led to the quality child care centers that you will find today at the two Early Learners Child Development Centers in Dubuque. She started out doing in-home child care for several children, making sure they had stimulating activities, a bright sunny playroom, and lots of individual attention.
By 1972, with the help of her husband, who was nearing graduation, she started a real child care center, the first in the area, in her home. By 1973, the young couple had built the first stand-alone private center in the tri-states. It was an exciting time as they basically had to create the philosophy, programs, environment, and systems of operation that would become a model in the area for quality child care. In 1974, they welcomed another daughter to their family. It was a busy four years!! “Ms. Holly,” as she has been forever-after known, was really happy to be able to raise her two children along with so many others in the way that she had envisioned.
In 1977, their second center which was then called Piglet’s Place was opened on Windsor Ave. and in 1980, center number three, Tigger’s Den, opened on Duggan Dr. Unfortunately, the stress of both living and working together became too great, and the couple divorced in 1982. Ms. Holly retained the two centers on Windsor Ave and Duggan Dr , and continued on as the single parent of two and the partner of hundreds of other parents throughout the following years who entrusted their children to the caring, creative, and trustworthy staff of the centers which were re-named as Early Learners Child Development Centers in 2005.
Her recollections of those early years include very warm memories of the children and their parents as well as the wonderful staff members who became part of her child care family. “It was such an exciting time,” she says. ” We had very few real examples of how to organize everything. I just knew that I had a vision of an environment for children which would be bright and colorful and full of things to do, materials to stimulate little imaginations, and caring adults for children to love and trust.
“Being part of the lives of those children and their families is an experience I will always treasure – and I still do, because now lots of those children are all grown up and are bringing their children to us. In fact, just by a strange coincidence my nephew, who designed our web site, happened to pick a picture of three of my ‘child care grandchildren’ (whose parents I cared for) to be on the home page of this web site. And our video testimonial was given by one of my 1st twelve children who attended the center in my home. It’s been an amazing 40 plus years!”
There were many innovations during all those years, and new programs that were developed. The Early Learners centers now offer programs for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, before-and-after school and summer programs for grade schoolers, and include children with special needs. They also began providing transportation to and from school on their bright green school buses in 2006. Free preschool has always been provided at Early Learners, and developmental, values-based programs are offered for every age.
And the journey continues. Who knows? After all, in 2011 they welcomed a third generation child whose Mom and Grandmother both attended Early Learners!