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Chapter Five

How to Start A Christian Daycare

Rev. Ellsworth E. McIntyre

Founder of Grace Community Schools & Early Childhood Education Pioneer

Chapter Five

My Road to Freedom

My son, Bart, secured the safety chains of the trailer and I slid behind the wheel of the crowded 1979 Ford wagon. As the interstate cleared of icy conditions, I relaxed and considered my plan. I had the $39,000 of severance pay and another $51,000 equity from the sale of my home in New Hampshire and another former home in Maryland. My mother had generously offered to give me free rent until I could find another position. Her Florida home was irresistible after New Hampshire. What skills did I have? Well, a specialist in rescuing mismanaged schools or an overeducated car salesman seemed to be the sum. Perhaps this time I could buy the school. That is a great idea. These churchmen were desperate enough to sign a contract. Perhaps I could talk them out of a whole school. Using my direct-mail techniques, I could flood the school with new students and survive that inevitable moment when their churches would withdraw their students. Thereby, I could have a Christian school free from the smothering incompetence of a church. The next $100,000 surplus I earned would be mine. The school property would be laid up for my children. Why not? My family deserved an inheritance, as the Scripture verse, “A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children’s children,” (Prov. 13:22) came to mind.

We stopped in Fairfax, Virginia, to visit some former teaching associates. They were now on the faculty of a school administered by a conservative Presbyterian. The school was wholly owned by an individual. I studied the school. Could this be the model for me? I asked the owner if he knew of a school similar to his that I could buy? Being a very kind and gracious man, he tried very hard to find such a school but without success. While we were riding in his car, however, we chanced by a daycare center. He followed my gaze toward the center and remarked, “Now, there’s an idea.” “What’s that?” I asked. “Well, he added, “a man could locate several small schools similar to those as feeders to a larger central school.” The subject of the conversation changed, but my mind raced toward a plan.

Daycare as a Seed Bed

A preschool seemed obvious as the way to begin a school. Instead of beginning at K-5 or first grade, why not begin where the market was begging for vendors—daycare. It was suddenly plain. Why had I not seen this before?

Arriving in Bonita Springs, Florida, I started searching for property and a contractor. The risks were very great. After all, I was a fifty-year-old man with a large family. What if I failed? Fainthearted, I applied for a position with another school, but the door was closed. The New Hampshire school board persuaded my recommending agency that I was “unfit” since I had threatened to sue them. This only strengthened my resolve to press toward independence and the promise of freedom. There was no way but forward. The will of the Lord is very plain when only one option is available.

My mother made good her promise of free rent, but her second marriage, after my father’s death, was not going as well as she had hoped. Then she was stricken with stomach cancer. I had even less time and capital than I had planned to start a school and care for my family. Renting a home for a family of eight, if possible to find such a home, was not within my budget. I packed up my family, and we moved into a campground near Naples. We lived there for seven months. I visited bank after bank, seeking a mortgage for a house and school. To my chagrin, bankers were not impressed with educational credentials; they regarded ministers as poor business risks (I certainly couldn’t argue with that!). They hinted that my plan called for long hours. Could I work that hard? It seemed they thought that teachers and ministers were lazy (I couldn’t argue about that!). They kept asking for proof that I could make a profit. It seemed that they thought ministers were insipid Marxists (I very certainly couldn’t argue with that). I gathered profit-and-loss sheets, and letters of testimony stating that I could and had always made a profit. I had a pile of such letters.

Finally, by accident, or more properly, the Lord’s design, I chanced on a city bank executive who was taking a local manager’s place for a summer vacation. At last, face to face with a decision-maker, I won a construction loan for the school. We opened our first school on February 3,1986 with 24 students. In a brief three months, it crossed into the black. The Lord had, at last, given me freedom.

I still remember that April morning when the tyranny of the profit and loss statement spelled freedom to my eager eyes. I floated out the side door to the playground and flopped down on one of the low picnic tables. The warm winter Florida sun bathed me as I listened to the happy shrieks of the children at play. No more school boards, no more church boards, no more assurances of their insincere praise; I was free! Thank God, free at last! I burst out laughing. I recognized that I was quoting Martin Luther King. Well, I wasn’t black, but I had known the chains of slavery.

The Idiot Provider

I still had one surprise, however, when I showed my balance sheet to the bank: “Sorry, but we cannot give you a mortgage for a house. Yes, you are making money, but a new business must have at least two years’ experience.” Shocked, I had to tell my wife that two years of campground life may be in prospect. She did not cry this time. As a matter of fact, over the brutal years of grinding poverty, she had cracked only once. She was true to her stoic Scotch heritage. We lived in a New Hampshire campground from June 1983, until the first week of December waiting for a house to be built. Delay after delay kept us in the campground until the pipes froze, and the season’s first snow started to fall. Our children, ever happy to live in the worst of conditions, rose laughing and dancing about welcoming the snow, like pagan wood nymphs. As I laughed to watch them sticking out their tongues to catch the flakes of snow and whirling about with outstretched arms, I caught the sight of Patricia (Wallace) McIntyre. Down dropped the curtain of the usual adamant self-control. Her usual patience gave way to despair as she muttered, “I can’t take it anymore,” and then just as quickly caught herself. In a flash, I felt ashamed to be the poor provider that I was. She deserved better!

Now with the prospect of two more years of camping, Florida’s rainy season came pouring down on our trailer’s tin roof. Outside, the boys moved their tent onto wood pallets in a vain attempt to escape the dampness. But with the school, we had lots of money. I bought a lot across the street from the school for cash and began to build a house for cash. I had reserved a fund as extra capital. It was a dangerous business practice to spend all my cash, but what was another risk? My sons built the house in only 58 days. They labored up to 12 hours per day. They too had some Scotch in their blood.

Raised from the Dunghill

July 4, 1986 found us still not in our house but very close. Worried about my wife, I booked a weekend at the Ritz Carlton Hotel on Vanderbilt Beach. We arrived at the hotel 3:00 p.m. on the dot, hoping no one would notice that campground bums were invading the place. In front of us, a very snooty couple listened to the clerk apologize that their room was not ready yet, but the clerk did have a substitute room available with only one king-sized bed instead of two separate beds. The snooty wife went off into a rage, “Certainly not!” I felt sorry for the clerk.

Ducking around the couple, I said, “My wife and I are friendly enough for one bed.” The snooty woman glared, and my wife blushed. The clerk forced back a smile and pushed a key over the counter. With perky aplomb, she explained that we would be upgraded at no extra charge to the club floor. The extra key would allow us exclusive use of the elevator to reach our outrageously expensive luxury at no additional charge. With deep satisfaction, we sat on our private balcony overlooking the gulf, and with a warm hug, I quoted to my wife, “He hath raised us from the dunghill and made us to sit with princes” (I Sam. 2:8).

More Success

We opened our second school in Golden Gate on May 2, 1988 with 48 students enrolled and 4 teachers with 2 aides. One year later, we had 153 students enrolled with 8 teachers and 2 aides and a waiting list of 15. This school broke even from the first day.

The third Grace Community School, located in Naples Park, was under construction by April 1988. It opened its doors on September 12,1988 with 43 students enrolled and 2 teachers with 3 aides. This school broke even the first day also. It soon had 114 students and 7 teachers with 4 aides.

This outstanding success is particularly significant in view of the fact that Collier County at the time had only 1,750 kindergarten children entering its system each year. The total number of single-family homes was only about 30,000, if we include the entire trading area of Naples. What we have convincingly demonstrated is that this enterprise is reproducible in Naples, which is a very weak market. The chances are the reader’s market is much larger than Naples. Imagine how much better you can do in your market!