Director Donna Lambdin started work at the John Kenney Child Care Center at Heller Park on July 18, 1988, just a year after the center completed its first year of operation. The first director, Donna Denker, left for health reasons after her first year of service.
JANUARY 24, 2013: I had been working at ABZ Academy, a child care center in Metuchen, New Jersey. I taught in the mornings and was the director in the afternoon. There were other members of the support staff, so I didn't have to be in charge of everything.
I had taken an intensive course for directors in Trenton and when I came back I heard that the center might go up for sale. I just happened to pick up the local papers and there was an ad for a director at John Kenney. I applied, I was hired and I started about three weeks later.
‘THE CENTER WAS HAVING GROWING PAINS'
I was made director of education and there was also a director of operations who did the books and things of that sort. At that time, the center was having some growing pains. Obviously, losing a director and getting a new one was not easy. The payroll was done manually with charts every Monday, and with all the interruptions that day it took me the entire day to do payroll, and nothing much else. In fact, we just changed that. We went bi-weekly about two years ago, but have been using a payroll company for years.
The first director worked for about a year before the center was built, and she planned very closely with Mr. Heller. The whole layout and design of the building came originally from a concept of joining trailers. They didn't use the trailers, but they built from that original thought. The original hallway and classrooms were long and narrow.
THE NEW BUILDING
We were in that first building for thirteen years, from 1987 to 2000. We moved to this building in October of 2000.
This new building was constructed because the industrial park was expanding. We were off the beaten track; isolated all by ourselves, but gradually individual buildings started encroaching. They wanted to build another building and they would have had to compromise their design. We would have been more or less surrounded, engulfed by these big warehouses. They decided to build us a new building.
This building is based on the old design, because, originally, Mr. Heller wanted use the same plans and just rebuild. So I had the difficult position of trying to change his mind because we had lived in it for thirteen years and we knew what worked and what could work better. Although it was a great building, I felt we could much improve on it and I didn't feel that it would do justice to the money spent on construction to build a replica of something that was thirteen years old at that time.
‘BOY, I'M GLAD I LISTENED TO YOU'
We made the hallway wider, we made a lobby which we didn't have before, and we made the offices much larger, because we had been very cramped. We did little things like moving the refrigerator closer to the entrance door to the rooms so the parents didn't have to walk all the way through the rooms to deposit their children's lunches. We put two doors in the kitchen so, if we had an evening program, people could go through the room and wouldn't get bottlenecked at one door.
When Mr. Heller came back he said, “Boy, I'm glad I listened to you,” because he could see that it was well worth making those changes.
At first he was very much involved and I think I had to gain his trust, so everything I did had to pass through him. But gradually over time he gave me more authority to act on my own, until it became just a budget issue. We would meet and discuss the budget and as long as he knew that this was the amount of money that we needed for our operation, and would stay within the budget, he left basically everything else to me.
I almost feel as if the child care center is mine, because I have the autonomy to do what I think is right.
‘I HAVE GROWN ALONG WITH THE JOB'
I have a degree in psychology and a minor in education. I previously taught sixth grade and left when my daughter was born. Then somebody was leaving ABZ Academy in April of 1973. I was asked to take over a three-year-old class.
I didn't know if I could do it, but I had a three-year-old child and I said, “What do I have to lose?” It was basically for the months of April, May and June and it turned out that I absolutely loved it!
With sixth graders you can stand on your head and they don't bat an eye, but you can do anything with little ones and they get so excited! I had been certified to teach kindergarten through eighth grade, so I continued on for a time and I also went back to Kean University and received my nursery certification. Then while I was working here, I earned my master's degree in child care administration. I guess I have just grown along with the job.
‘GIVING BACK TO THE COMMUNITY'
Ninety-eight children currently attend the child care center. We're licensed for 108, but never had more than 99. Actually, our goal is 97, which enables us to give children the proper attention and is appropriate for the size of the classrooms.
That was one of the things that Mr. Heller was very concerned about, because if he was going to do this, he needed to do it right. We weren't in the business to make money but we still had a strict budget. It wasn't that the money just flowed with no end. As long as I operated within that budget, he ended up letting me handle things. The purpose was to benefit the community.
He told me that people in the community complain about truck traffic, so the industrial park is not looked on that favorably, but the child care center is. He is giving back to the community.
‘HE DID ALL THAT HE COULD TO BENEFIT THE CHILDREN'
In the beginning, Mr. Heller was very involved and we went to Washington one day, where we both spoke at a conference about corporate-sponsored child care.
People were afraid to sponsor child care centers because of its potential liability, and he was trying to convince them that it had worked for him. Many things were installed in this building to limit liability. For instance, there are large windows so you can see into the classrooms that nobody's hiding in closets or things like that. These windows protect the children but they also protect the staff members from being falsely accused of child molestation. He did all that he could to benefit the children.
‘IT MAKES YOU PRETTY LOYAL WHEN SOMEONE THINKS THAT MUCH OF YOU'
Personally, his first director resigned because she had breast cancer and I developed breast cancer while I was here. Mr. Heller had somebody do research and he found the best surgeon that he could for me. She didn't take insurance and he gave me money out of his pocket so that I could go to the surgeon that he thought I should see because of her reputation.
It makes you pretty loyal when somebody thinks that much of you.
‘RATES AT CENTER MUCH LOWER THAN GOING RATES'
Rates at our center are much lower than the going rates in the community. Tuition for each child in the three youngest classes is currently $700 per month and tuition for a child in the two oldest classes, the pre-K and the kindergarten, is $675 per month. For-profit centers and some corporate centers are more expensive and that's the big attraction, especially in this day and age. Parents are not just shopping for price, they are shopping for quality also.
We're not charging the full cost of care, but we get the subsidy and we're not paying for rent or a mortgage. However, we do have to run the center and maintain it. We pay for our heat and electric, we replace the rugs and the playground equipment, and we take care of whatever breaks or needs to be replaced.
THE OLD CAR
Mr. Heller always drove an old car. I drove with him when we went to Cherry Hill on the Turnpike and everyone thought I was quite brave. We had the windows open, but there was a hole in the floor. Fumes from the car were coming up through this hole and out the windows and we were shouting to each other due to the noise from the Turnpike.
He always had an old car which he would drive to the construction sites or wherever he went. Helaine had the Mercedes and he always had somebody else's reject.
I had a Center car. It came with the job and the purpose of it was twofold. It was a huge gray Chevy station wagon. I didn't like it from the very beginning, even though it was almost new then. I was to drive it back and forth, so it was garaged basically at my home and it was used during the day. We'd pick up lunch and we went to the bank or to get supplies, so this was a vehicle to do center business.
Mr. Heller was of the mind that once I had it, I would keep it, but the car always needed repairs. I would ask him to buy a new car when the bill got really big, and he would tell me that you can't buy a new car for the $900 repair or $1,500 repair, or whatever.
Well, I had used it to pick up my daughter at the airport. We had come from the Turnpike and the car was right in front of my house when half the insides fell to the ground. It just upset me so much because we had just been on the turnpike and if this happened there, we would have just stopped dead.
He wanted me to have it fixed and I said, “I cannot drive that car anymore. I just feel so unsafe in it.” So I finally got a new car in 2003. He liked it so much that he got himself one, same color, same make. I think it was his first new car.
Basically, we worked 24/7. In the beginning, after he was done with his day at the office, he would have time for the center. We started working on the budget at 7 p.m. and ended at 11 o'clock at night. So for a number of years, anything related to the center wouldn't be done in the course of a normal workday for me
‘HE TAUGHT ME HOW TO RUN IT AS A BUSINESS'
Mr. Heller has always said that it's not that he's that much smarter than anyone else, but that most people would give up sooner and he sticks to things until he achieves his goal.
He came to my daughter's wedding. He's a unique person, and he taught me a lot. I knew what was right educationally and had to prove it to him many times, but he taught me how to run it as a business.