By Matt de Simone
Cherry Ramsey and Debbie Mowles have spent the last 40 years pouring their hearts and souls into a business they helped start, the Mill Creek Child Care Center.
Coming up on October 18, Mill Creek Child Care celebrates its 40th anniversary. On October 23, the child care center will hold a celebration event at Mill Creek Baptist Church.
The child care center is a state-licensed center that provides services Monday through Friday for preschool and elementary school children 2 through 12 years of age.
Cherry Ramsey and Debbie Mowles are the two women who have kept the center running since its inception. In 1982, Mill Creek put an ad in The Fincastle Herald surveying the community about the need for early childcare in the area. Ramsey and Mowles, fresh out of college, reached out expressing interest.
“We had to evolve with technology,” Mowles said when recently digging through old documents published at the onset of the center. “I think the original letter we (wrote in response to the ad) said, ‘Hey, we’re graduating! We would love to help you with this!’ that I wrote on my old electric typewriter, which was a big deal when I was in college.”
Ramsey and Mowles met in the third grade and became fast friends. They graduated from James River High School and Radford University with degrees in Early Childhood Development.
“The pastor at the time was Rev. Bill Smithwick,” Ramsey recalled. “He had a 3-year-old… he put the initial ad in the newspaper. Mill Creek, at the time, had all this extra space. I think the wheels started spinning in his mind regarding utilizing the church as a mission to the community. He came to the church every day, so he could bring his son with him.”
Ramsey and Mowles wrote their letter to the church and received a response from Smithwick. Upon graduation, Ramsey and Mowles got the ball rolling, learning how to set up the center. Although most churches that offer childcare don’t have to be state-licensed, Ramsey and Mowles thought receiving a license would bring more credibility to the center.
“As a parent, if I’m a parent, if you’re a licensed center, I like that,” Ramsey said. “You have someone coming in checking on you. For us, it would help us to know to do the right thing from the get-go.”
Mill Creek Baptist Church then met with the teaching tandem, and after getting the church’s approval, they soon started the endeavor.
“We were both living with our parents still,” Mowles recalled. “Cherry was at my house, and we were waiting on the phone call to see whether or not [the approval] passed. I just remember when that call came, it was like, ‘if this is what God wants us to do, it will work.’ Forty years later, we’re still here.”
The original child care center operated out of one church room with one full-time child (Smithwick), a couple part-time preschoolers, and one after-schooler. Over the years, the center expanded from one classroom, then two classrooms, and now, 40 years later, the center currently has six preschool classrooms inside a built-on addition of the church partially designed for the center.
The duo has faced many challenges since beginning their childcare careers. However, the recent pandemic may be the most daunting challenge they’ve overcome. During that period of uncertainty, the center shut down for 10 and a half weeks. Ramsey and Mowles were forced to pivot away from how they educated children all the years prior once the center reopened.
“I would say our most challenging thing in 40 years is Covid,” Mowles said. “But, it was also nice to know we could adapt and make changes to things we’ve always done and see the positives.”
Ramsey added, “It taught us to think outside of the box and to do things differently. We’re doing things a little differently now. Some things weren’t all bad with Covid.”
The ladies remained positive. Their goal was to get back to the number of enrolled children. Grants provided by the pandemic relief fund helped Mill Creek Child Care Center remain open when some in-church child care providers in the Roanoke Valley were forced to close due to dwindling numbers or the unknown safety amid the pandemic.
“That’s the last thing we need in our area right now,” Ramsey thought during that period of time. “You have to have cared for these children so the parents can go to work or work from home with a 3-year-old.”
Mill Creek is gradually building numbers back up in the number of enrolled children and childcare staff. Ramsey and Mowles have continued to work hard to get the center fully enrolled. The center is state-licensed for 120 students and currently has 90 enrolled. In 2019, the center had over 100 kids in the program.
In the last 40 years, over 2,000 children have enrolled in Mill Creek’s childcare program. Ramsey and Mowles expressed that the Botetourt community has always been supportive in looking out for the center’s best interests.
“It all just fell into place,” Ramsey said. “I’m telling you, it’s a ‘God thing,’ and it still is. God has provided for us throughout all of these years, and that’s why the church and the center are still here.”
“It works, but you work at it continually, and you’re supportive of each other,” Mowles added. “Sometimes it’s not easy. Sometimes it’s a breeze, but, you know… It’s a mission of the church.”
The Mill Creek Child Care Center’s 40th Anniversary Celebration at Mill Creek Baptist Church takes place on Sunday, October 23, at 11:45 a.m.
For more information about the child care center, visit www.millcreekbc.com/childcare-center.