Sandra Christian got her start in childcare at the age of 17, in a double-wide portable in Surrey’s Panorama Ridge neighbourhood.
She was in high school at the time, and spent five weeks working at the Animal Crackers preschool as part of the Grade 12 co-op program at Queen Elizabeth Secondary.
At the end of it, the owner offered her a job, on the condition she pursue Early Childhood Educator training. Then, Christian was given the opportunity to buy the business – run-down portable and all.
“The floors were falling through. There was mice in there. It was pretty much a shamble,” Christian said.
Fast-forward 25 years, and Christian is marking a “full-circle” milestone – the silver anniversary of her Creative Kids Learning Centers.
“I just turned 50, my company just turned 25 and I started it when I just turned 25, so it’s all just so – oh my gosh,” Christian said Friday (Sept. 24). “To see Creative Kids, where it’s been through, how far it’s come, where we are now…”
Creative Kids became official in 1996 in that double-wide. Starting with Christian, one assistant and a preschool program for three- and four-year-olds, it has since grown to include an infant/toddler program, full-day childcare, a ready-to-read program, a school-age program, spring and winter camps and extended preschool programs in eight locations stretching from South Surrey to Chilliwack – not to mention around 200 ECE-trained staff.
It was no easy feat, Christian said, noting she waitressed nights and weekends for the first eight years, teaching two preschool classes back-to-back before driving to The Keg to work the late shift.
“That’s what it took back then because I could only afford to pay myself $500 a month,” she said.
“I’m feeling really proud right now.”
Christian said she wrote the program that Creative Kids follows when she was 19 years old, and now has a team of eight that integrates her vision to ensure every site offers the same experience.
Challenges over the years have ranged from helping Creative Kids children and families through the tragic death of a young friend and supporting another family through their young daughter’s terminal illness, to the COVID-19 pandemic and all it has entailed.
“I’ll never forget – it was March 20 (2020) and I had my head office team at my house. That day I laid off 156 employees, Christian said. “I’ve never been so heartbroken, devastated and scared in my life.”
After benefiting from funding that enabled the centres to reopen – for which Christian said the provincial and federal governments deserve “a huge clap” – there were new protocols and policies to put in place, as well as COVID cases amongst staff and families, including outbreaks that necessitated closing some of the centres for a time.
“Our (Willowbrook) location was probably hit the hardest. We had to close down for a whole week. We had staff down, families down, children down. I think all of our locations were affected at one point.”
And then there’s the issue of NDP’s plan to offer $10/day childcare in B.C.
Christian said she believes in affordable, accessible childcare, “but when you use the term $10 a day and put that thought and that verbiage into people’s heads, what that does is demean and disrespect and give false thoughts as to what it costs to care for a child, an infant/toddler, a three-to-five every day.”
“For me, that’s two cups of coffee a day. That isn’t an accurate description of what we do.”
Christian said a better route would be to call it the Affordable Childcare Initiative, and put the money into the hands of parents who actually need affordable childcare.
She is “hoping my voice and the voices of the private childcare sector can be heard” during an upcoming meeting with Minister of State for Childcare Katrina Chen.
“I feel there needs to be another look at how this is being delivered.”
Until then, Christian is focused on celebrating Creative Kids’ anniversary. For the big day – Tuesday (Sept. 28) – she ordered anniversary shirts and masks for staff, and every child is to receive a plant pot with daisy seeds to plant, a reference to the company logo.
“It’s planting the seed for further education,” Christian said. “And we still are, 25 years later.”
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