Director steps down after decades of leading Golden Heart

Jul. 4—For most people, a day care is an important, but temporary, part of life. Parents drop off and pick up their kids for a few years before life moves on. Usually the staff turns over frequently and many of the centers come and go.

But Golden Heart Child Care Center, operated by Taylor Corp. in upper North Mankato, has not only an unusually long-tenured staff but a following that moves from generation to generation.

Emily and Chris Lowry can attest to it.

As kids in the late '80s and early '90s, they went to Gold Heart at the same time, played and went to storytime, but otherwise not remembering a lot of the experience. But for Chris, the fact he knew he first saw his wife there stuck with him.

In 2007, the couple was dating and on their way to dinner when Chris said he wanted to stop and look around the Golden Heart grounds for old times sake. He'd come armed with a ring.

"He proposed to me at the picnic table because it's where we first met," Emily said. "He wanted to bring it full circle."

Their connection to Golden Heart continues. Two of their kids went there and the third is in her last year there.

"It's like you're back home when you go there," Emily said. "It's fun. Some of the staff from when we went there are still there."

Pam Willard, executive director of the center, has been there the longest, starting the day it opened in 1980. Last week she retired after 41 years.

"Pam drops in and out of the classroom and always has a presence and talks to all the kids and all the kids know who she is," Emily said. "It shows it's a great place to be to have someone stay there that many years. We love, love, love the staff."

Unique center

Larry Taylor, vice president at Taylor Corp., said the center grew out of challenges employees — many of them women working part time and at various shifts — had in finding child care.

Taylor said the company talked to outside companies to manage a day care center for its employees but found no takers because of the various work shifts and hours at the plant. So the North Mankato company decided to build and operate one itself and subsidize part of the costs for parents.

"There were very, very few (company operated day cares) in the country to get any information from. We just kind of winged it. We worked with employees on what their needs were," Taylor said.

He said that at the time state regulators were not at all keen on the idea of a company running a day care for their employees. "It was so new that they were unfamiliar with it and had concerns about a company-supported child care. Now they're very supportive of the idea."

Taylor said after Golden Heart was shown successful, other businesses from Minnesota and other states came calling for advice.

"They started inquiring about it, and we invited them in and were very open and shared everything with them."

The child care center, open 6 a.m.-6 p.m. weekdays, brought some unintended benefits for the company beyond attractinging and retaining employees. He said not long after the center opened, a company survey of female employees found the day care led to more women in leadership posts.

"We had women who turned down opportunities to go into management and leadership positions because they didn't have child care. More women got into management positions because we have child care," Taylor said.

There from the start

Willard was hired by the first director, Mary Jane Blethen, just as Golden Heart was being set up. Three years later Willard took over the top spot.

Taylor said Willard's long leadership has brought stability and quality to the center.

"She is so committed to the welfare and care of children. That's her top focus and always has been. What's best for the child has always been her concern," Taylor said.

Willard said working there for four decades was easy for her.

"It's a good place to work, great people to work with." Willard said a lot of the staff has been there 20 to 30 years, a highly unusual tenure in a business that typically has high turnover.

Willard credits the longevity of staff to the fact they have good pay and benefit packages through Taylor Corp., benefits not usually offered at other centers.

She also gives Taylor Corp. high marks for subsidizing 40%-50% of the cost of the child care tuition for parents. "Many of the companies (with day care centers) don't subsidize, and many of them have closed over the years."

Willard said there are current employees at Taylor Corp. who went to Golden Heart when they were kids. And some who went there as kids came back later to work at the center.

Golden Heart takes children as young as 6 weeks up to when they start kindergarten. The center is licensed for up to 147 children but enrollment numbers vary during the year. During the pandemic, numbers plunged as many employees worked from home.

"Employees were able to keep their kids at home and not pay (child care) tuition. We were down to 35 kids for a while during COVID." But enrollment numbers have steadily ramped up as the pandemic has eased.

Willard said one of the biggest changes she's seen over the years is that most kids are there full time now.

"There aren't as many families that need part-time care. More moms are working full time.

"And now more of the fathers are involved with their kids here now. We used to have some but now a lot are very involved."

Willard said retirement won't mean she'll lose touch with Golden Heart.

"I'll stop back and see people and see the changes."