FLINT, Michigan — Annette Hughes, the Director of Sunny Patch Learning Center in Flint, is facing a crucial decision regarding the future of her three childcare centers and the employees working there. Despite the challenges, Sunny Patch is determined to maintain the quality care that it's known for by ensuring that the children in their care have their needs met.
Established in 2009, the center takes pride in offering meals representative of the Black community and meeting the needs of the children in their care. With three locations and a range of services, including traditional academics, storytime, video games, and computer programming, Sunny Patch is committed to providing the best possible care for the children of Flint.
However, providing childcare services to the next generation of Flint children in the aftermath of the Flint Water Crisis has proved challenging. The center is “still buying water to cook meals and for the children to drink at the center,” Hughes says in deep reflection. The pandemic offered another blow to Sunny Patch, where “before the pandemic, we [thrived] with four childcare center sites and a contract with Flint Genesee Job Corps.”
Nonetheless, coming up on its 15th anniversary, Sunny Patch Learning Center remains a crucial pillar in the city, providing “a difference in the lives of others as they look for work, go to work, or attend school.” Flintside caught up with Hughes to talk about the origins of Sunny Patch, her journey in childcare, and where the center plans to go in the future.
One of Sunny Patch Learning Center's childcare rooms pictured on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023, illustrates their goal of meeting children's needs. (Anthony Summers | Flintside.com)
Flintside: Can you give a bit of history about who Sunny Patch is and the type of work you all do?
: “Sunny Patch Learning Center is a childcare center that provides quality care for children 8 weeks to 5 years old and up to age 10 in the summer. Our definition of quality care has a different meaning than most childcare centers that are open. Our center prides itself on quality care by ensuring that the children in our care have their needs met. That means their personal needs are met, they are fed well with great meals, changed when needed, and their noses are wiped and faces are cleaned. Everything else is a plus. The children also have structured time for learning that includes fingerplays, songs, story times, and identifying colors, shapes, letters, and numbers.”
Flintside: Working with children, I assume your passion is education and childcare. Can you briefly discuss your story and how it led to you becoming the Director?
: “I started as an in-home childcare provider. I have had many jobs, but once I started working with children, I absolutely fell in love with the job. Getting paid was awesome, but caring for the children was priceless. Once I received the proper licensing to provide care for the public, I decided to get the education that went along with the job. I didn’t stop furthering my education until I obtained my Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education in 2008. I received my Master’s degree in early childhood education in 2021.”
"Getting paid was awesome, but caring for the children was priceless," says Director Annette Hughes, pictured inside her office on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023. (Anthony Summers | Flintside.com)
Flintside: How has business thrived despite incredible odds such as the Flint Water Crisis and the pandemic?
: “The Flint water crisis was and is a big deal for everyone. We were supported by the State of Michigan and received filters and new water faucets, but we are still here dealing with the water issues. I’m not quite there with trusting that the water is safe for drinking. I do not believe the problem has been solved. The pandemic was a hard hit on us here at Sunny Patch. It was an incredibly stressful time for us all. We eventually closed all our doors in March 2020 and reopened the sites in stages beginning June 2021. We [got] PPP and special funding, and [a] combination of grants helped put the business in a good financial space and allowed us to provide staff with bonuses and raises.”
Flintside: Can you elaborate on what a typical day looks like at Sunny Patch and the types of learning and engagement activities that Sunny Patch provides children?
: “A typical day is busy with our infant/toddlers and preschool. We greet our children and parents upon arrival. The children are on a schedule from breakfast to free play, diapering/potting, group time, outdoor play, small group, naptime, storytime, music & movement, etc. Our children love group time, especially the fingerplays and songs. Children are special little people you learn to know and love as they grow. They are just like us! Children have good days, bad days, and days they don’t want to be bothered.”
One of Sunny Patch's Lead Teachers, Faderika Thomas, is all smiles on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023. (Anthony Summers | Flintside.com)Flintside: That’s so true. How do you all handle those moments?
: “We as educators deal with children [with] behavior issues. One has to stop and ask, what is the cause behind the behavior? It could be that the child may need a hug, want something to eat, or want to scream until they can’t anymore. We allow all of it. If they want a hug, we will give it to them. We will feed them if they are hungry, no matter what time they arrive. If they want to scream, we will say, go in the bathroom, and I will stand by the door, and you scream as loud as you want to, get it all out, and when you’re done, let me know, and we can clean your face and get on with our day.”
Flintside: That’s truly powerful work. Even adults need that.
: “Can you believe this works? Children have a lot of emotions, and they need help expressing themselves, and we have found this to work for us and them.”
Flintside: What’s been the impact Sunny Patch has seen serving Flint residents?
: “The impact that we as a company have on Flint residents is making sure parents are comfortable leaving their children in our care. Parents need to work, and we are here to make that happen. We have grandparents calling us to look for childcare for their grandchildren. So, I would say our impact on Flint residents makes a difference in the lives of others as they look for work, go to work, or attend school.”
Flintside: What are Sunny Patch’s hopes and goals for the future moving forward?
: “Sunny Patch directors and staff are not perfect, but we're striving for greatness. I hope the childcare industry (lawmakers) will one day be better than it is. We deserve the pay that goes along with the care that we provide. One of my future goals is to pay higher wages and to offer staff medical and dental benefits.”
To learn more about Sunny Patch Learning Center, visit one of its three Flint locations: 1160 Donaldson Blvd Flint, MI 48504 (810-235-2444); 1736 Carmanbrook Pkwy Flint, MI 48506 (810-233-9113); 3393 Clio Road Flint, MI 48504 (810-422-5983). You can also visit their website, Facebook, and Instagram.