‘Auntie Daughty’ did it for the kids

Wildwood Park Group Daycare closed its doors for good on Wednesday

Daughty Preena (above

Daughty Preena (above

For days in November, Daughty Preena woke up with sweaty palms and stomach aches. She worried excessively.

“Is it true? Is it true?” she asked herself repeatedly.

Preena had made the decision to close her daycare, which operated in  Pitt Meadows for the past three decades. With her husband retiring, she says it’s time for the couple to spend more time together and travel.

“It’s going to hit me next week,” Preena said, “when I don’t hear their voices.”

Preena’s Wildwood Park Group Daycare closes its doors for good today. To commemorate its years of operation, Preena is hosting an open house at the daycare Saturday afternoon.

“It’s sad to see it end,” said Mary Morallato, whose two sons were the first to enter Preena’s daycare. “It doesn’t really affect me personally anymore, but she was definitely an institution in Pitt Meadows.”

The evenly spaced, unassuming Wildwood Crescent houses convey little about that.

But the basement of Preena’s home Wednesday morning is bustling, as it has for 30 years.

The daycare is divided into two rooms, one for toys, one for books. Along one side of the reading room is a bookcase with picture books and pop-up books for new readers.  A small table with equally small chairs sit in the centre of the room and a couple of larger, grown-up chairs flank the corners.

Not toddlers, but a few teenagers fill the reading room – daycare goers of a previous time who drop by from time to time during their summer vacation. Their legs now jut out far passed the ends of the chairs they used to comfortably sit on. Parents also stop in for a coffee as they drop off their kids.

Around the corner, five kids patter around the playroom, building puzzles and stacking blocks, excitedly plotting elaborate games.

“We’re building a tower to the sky,” said one toddler.

Preena sits on the floor beside her helping with the ambitious project. With her short black hair away from her face and in beige capris, comfort is key for anyone devoted to playing with energetic toddlers.

Shelves of toys outline the perimeter with two tables and surrounding chairs in the centre. A vibrant garden mural stretches across the four walls against a bright purple background.

“My goal was to create a safe, small group-home setting,” said Preena, who in the past three decades would only accept eight kids at a time.

“Parents liked the small ratio. I could give the kids more attention, take them for walks, prepare them for kindergarten.”

As a high school student in Sri Lanka, Preena dreamed of working with children. Once she arrived in B.C. with her husband and 14-month-old daughter, the thought of owning a daycare began to percolate.

“I love working with children,” said Preena. “You get to guide them through their mistakes and challenges. These things they carry on as adults.”

Preena began work at Queensborough Daycare in the mid-1970s. During these days, she struggled to find quality care for her daughter, who was too young to accompany her to Queensborough. Frustrated by the lack of resources and quality facilities in the area, the first seeds of Preena’s Wildwood vision took root.

In 1980, with another baby on the way, Preena set to work to get her daycare license. Her first four kids came through the doors of Wildwood in 1981, shortly after the birth of her son.

“Those early days were a bit difficult,” said Preena. “I would have the daycare open long hours, from about 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.”

Always working with one staff member, Preena would have brief periods to nip off and prepare dinner for her own kids. Her husband Nissar would then serve and bath the kids, and help clean the daycare in the evenings.

“I really enjoyed having all the children around,” he said. “I realized that for some of them, they needed a father figure in their lives.”

He remembers taking one daycare graduate – now married and living in Victoria – to his first day at kindergarten.

“His parents were recently separated,” said Nissar. “His mom worked early and his father didn’t show up. When the teacher asked, ‘Where’s your dad?’ He pointed to me.” Nissar laughs.

Daughty Preena accommodated her schedule to the needs of the parents. Early morning breakfast was served if the kids needed to be dropped off earlier, late-night care was provided in the case of emergencies. Summers passed with little vacation time for her.

“I remember those early mornings,” said Preena’s daughter, Dilani Andrews. “I’d wake up to kids eating breakfast in our kitchen. There were always kids around, so it was nice as a kid. I’d come back from school and have a place to play.”

Word spread about Wildwood and soon Preena had to turn people down if she already had eight kids. The daycare became a central feature in a tight-knit neighbourhood.

“You knew that when you sent your kids there, they were taken care of,” said Morallato.

“It was so suited to what we wanted at the time. She had an understanding for children and those initial beginnings are so important. She taught them about having mutual respect.”

Preena devoted herself to learning about the care of children and their education. She knew how to care for kids with special needs, and how to prepare the older kids for school the following year.

“She would liaison with the schools when the kids were ready to go,” said Morallato. “She’d talk to the families and prepare them for the next year.”

Morallato says that she nominated Preena for Pitt Meadows Citizen of the Year, not only for the daycare but because of Preena’s many other community initiatives.

In 2004, she began Village Assist after the tsunami left Sri Lanka in distress. Parents in the neighbourhood immediately called Preena when they heard about the disaster, asking what they could do to help. With their support, Preena launched the charity and began fundraising.

The charity gave money to a village, in particularly bad shape, to build five houses and buy 20 bikes, sewing machines, and fishing boats. The $7,000 left over – not enough for another house – was given to Asante Centre for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome this March.

“I really believe children are the future of the community,” said Preena. “I want to donate to children’s causes as much as possible.”

At the daycare, Preena would also schedule the day for the kids to have a routine to follow. It began with two and a half hours of preschool, then free play. After snack time, they would go outside to play on the backyard jungle gym or go for group walks.

“As a kid, I loved it. But as a teenager, I began to avoid it at all costs,” said Andrews, laughing. “I vowed never to have kids, they were always around.”

Andrews has since put her two sons through her mother’s daycare and returned to help as a staff member.

“It’s been an interesting experience learning about the children’s unique experiences and needs,” said Preena. “They’ve taught me a lot. You need to have great patience with them.”

She pauses. A dispute has broken out between two boys over building blocks. One five-year-old insists the four-year-old won’t share. In an even tone, Preena reasons with the boys, paying them mutual respect and hearing them out. Crisis averted.

“Yeah, I had to sit on the thinking chair a lot,” Hishaam Wewala said with a smile revealing braces. The now quiet 17-year-old spent the first four years of his life at Preena’s daycare. “I’d be bossy and didn’t like to share. It didn’t fly with Auntie Daughty.”

Wewala met two of his good friends during the early days at Wildwood. The three boys went through elementary and high school together.

“My mom worked at 6 a.m. so I’d have to get up early,” said Wewala. “But I never complained about it. I looked forward to coming here. She was a motherly figure.”

As most of the kids still keep in touch with each other, they almost all keep in touch with Preena.

Hanging on one daycare wall are more than 30 pictures of Preena with her daycare children. Every year she would take a classroom-like picture of the kids from that year. Little four-year-olds smile back in frames marked 1982, then their kids smile back in frames marked 2005.

Preena takes a jumbo pencil to the wall, pointing out which ones are married, which ones are at university, which ones became doctors.

“I feel old looking at these,” said Preena, but she corrects herself with a laugh and a pointed index finger. “No, I’m young at heart. The kids keep me young.”

Many of them, past and present, will be at the open house on Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. One of Preena’s nieces brought over her two daughters from London, England so that they could see their great aunt’s daycare before it closes. Preena will provide drinks and refreshments, and entertainment for the kids.

“Of course I’ll be there,” said Morallato. “My one son is going, but the other is upset that he can’t make it. They love her dearly and visit her whenever they come back. She’s always been Auntie Daughty next door.”

Preena says it’s going to take a while adjusting to the change.

“I’ve loved the challenges and fun I’ve had with them,” she said. “Kids are just so honest, they’ll tell you anything. I’m really going to miss that, and just hearing their laughter out in the backyard.”