As a young mother, Deata McLemore realized that school and work was consuming her time when she would rather be with her family. With two children remaining in child care at the time, she switched her major from business to early child development and started her own daycare service in her basement.
Deata's husband, Kier McLemore, had a similar story. Working in a plant for four years, he was frustrated with his inability to watch the four kids he had at the time grow up.
"The years are going by, and we're not going to get those years back," Kier McLemore says. "It's important to put a stake in the ground, building those solid foundational relationships while they're still young."
The McLemores started Bottles-N-Backpacks child care and development center in 2004 in Detroit and moved the business to Dearborn before settling in Ypsilanti in 2006. The McLemores chose to bring Bottles-N-Backpacks to Ypsi because they moved to the area, but it became their home very quickly. Now located at 1003 W. Michigan Ave. in Ypsi, the business is open to children six months to 12 years old and their families before, during, and after school. Rates apply based on the age of the child, paid daily or weekly.
Connections between teachers and students at Bottles-N-Backpacks are formed as a bond, instead of a typical instructional relationship. The center also contributes to solving at-home issues by offering programs for students' parents.
Bottles-N-Backpacks' curriculum is designed to teach students skills they'll need in the long run, 10 or even 20 years after they're in daycare. The goal is to create a solid foundation between the children and parents to challenge them and provide a safe place for them to excel.
Bottles-N-Backpacks' program emphasizes mentorship, family and community outreach, and bilingual education while following the basics of Common Core curriculum. In the future, the McLemores plan to introduce organic lunches, social workers for children and families, and yoga classes, along with music and dancing.
"We want to make sure that we're going above and beyond the state guidelines and standards," Kier McLemore says. "As a child care center, we want to make sure that quality is the culture."
Parents also have opportunities to learn how to better help their children grow at Bottles-N-Backpacks. The center offers parent workshops on children's emotions, safety, self-esteem, relationships, how to manage money, and other topics. The McLemores struggled with some of these issues themselves in the past, so they teach from their own experiences. Deata McLemore says motivation, support, and love are a necessary part of the process.
"We're able to assist with providing resources and being able to ... show how it's possible to overcome circumstances," she says.
Demita Brown, whose 6-year-old daughter Callie has attended Bottles-N-Backpacks since 2012, says she looks to the McLemores as mentors because of their relationship and passion for the community.
"As a single parent, they opened to me as a new parent coming into their facilities," Brown says. "The program has helped my daughter prepare for preschool because I was working and she was learning while she was there. If I needed assistance and resources, they were able to help however they could. They have tremendously helped me to pursue my goals."
Washtenaw Intermediate School District superintendent Scott Menzel describes Bottles-N-Backpacks as a "high-quality" program, and the McLemores as "deeply committed" to children's growth and development.
"They've been great community partners, supporters of [Ypsilanti Community Schools], and committed to nurturing the whole child in their program design," Menzel says.
Spinning out of Bottles-N-Backpacks, the McLemores have created a community outreach program called the Convenient Commitment Initiative. This gives them the opportunity to work with other organizations and businesses in the area that are helping to move the community forward.
"A child is affected by three primary experiences: what happens in the household, the environment that they live in, and the educational system," Kier McLemore says.
The McLemores believe in strengthening the community aspect as much as the home and educational environments, which leads to their partnerships with local organizations like Destiny and Purpose Community Outreach (DAPCO). DAPCO and Bottles-N-Backpacks refer parents to each other, and Bottles-N-Backpacks offers community outreach workshops for families from DAPCO every Thursday. DAPCO also provides baby items to mothers in need, in and outside of Bottles-N-Backpacks.
The McLemores say families' feedback on their work often comes with tears and hugs. Because they're highly involved in students' lives, they also often hear feedback from teachers about students excelling in academics. Beyond those individual positive moments, the McLemores have much loftier goals for Bottles-N-Backpacks' impact on the Ypsi community.
"In a long-term perspective, we want to see growth in business development, drastic reduction of crime, a mentality of brotherly love where everybody is truly looking out for the neighbor next door," Kier McLemore says. "We want to see an increase in graduation."
Chanel Stitt is an Ypsilanti resident and a junior at the University of Michigan - Dearborn pursuing her bachelor's degree in journalism.
All photos by Doug Coombe.