The parents of most toddlers have learned to steel themselves against a short bout of tears shed at the day care center. But for 2-year-old George Pamporov, the tears fall around 5 p.m. - when his parents come to collect him from the new Wee Care Learning Academy on Catherine Street.
"He doesn't ever want to leave," said George's mom, who has been thrilled with the new day care option in Old Town Key West.
The family immigrated to Key West from Bulgaria, where George's grandparents still live, so the Wee Care webcams installed in each classroom and throughout the playground are a welcome link - literally - between the kids and their extended families, said George's mom, who gave her own mother in Bulgaria the link to watch her tiny, curly-haired grandson learn his letters and practice yoga each day in the Coconut Classroom reserved for 2-year-olds.
"Each family gets a secure login when they register," said Michelle Citon, who co-owns Wee Care Learning Academy with Millie Rodriguez, whom she met when their kids attended another day care center together. "So they can login and watch their child throughout the day. I've had some parents say it's hard for them to get any work done because they find themselves watching the kids so often. But it's also so good for grandparents, or military parents who are deployed - aside from the obvious transparency and safety issues it solves."
The two Key West moms, Citon and Rodriguez, opened Wee Care Learning Academy on Nov. 12, about a year after deciding to take matters into their own hands when it came to day care services.
"I stayed home with my daughter for her first two years, and when it came time to send her to day care, I found myself constantly saying, 'I wish there was a place that had this, and I wish that place did that,'" said Citon.
She and Rodriguez started talking until one thing led to another. Rodriguez's in-laws owned the property at 707 Catherine St. that formerly was an apartment complex. The pair applied for a zoning change at the Key West Planning Board, and as a concession to the neighborhood, agreed to have parents use the less-traveled Amelia Street in the rear to pick up and drop off their children, Citon said.
"We did a ton of research and we hired some of the best teachers in the industry," she added while walking through the Key Lime Classroom reserved for the older kids.
Wee Care is licensed for up to 52 kids, ages 2 through 5. The younger room is equipped with a miniaturized potty training bathroom that makes grown-ups feel like giants, while the older classroom is constantly engaged by a veteran pre-kindergarten teacher familiar with the statewide curriculum and requirements, "so these kids will absolutely be ready for kindergarten once they leave here," Rodriguez said.
Wee Care opens daily at 7:30 a.m., but there is no drop-off deadline, she emphasized.
"We wanted to open a little earlier for parents who have to be at work by 8 a.m., but we also know that as working parents, time with your kids is precious, so if a parent doesn't have to be at work until 10 a.m., why should they have to rush out and have the kid at day care by 8 a.m.? That didn't make any sense to us, so parents can bring their kids in anytime, as long as they enter quietly if it's after 9 a.m. and we've already started our lessons for the day."
At $155 per week, Wee Care costs about as much as other day care centers in the Lower Keys, Citon said.
"But we don't require any contracts, just a one-week deposit," she said.
Justin Woods, the father of a 2-year-old girl said last week that he doesn't trust anyone with his little girl.
"But I trust you guys," he told Rodriguez and Citon. "And I heard she stayed dry all day," he added, having already heard a full report on the potty training regime for his daughter.
Rodriguez looked around last week at the freshly laid sod, the new playground equipment and the 15 or so happy kids swarming around the property.
"We're only two weeks into it, but it finally feels real," she said. "The kids seem so happy, and it's such a good feeling to know we're filling such a huge and important need in this town."