“Often times, as a small business owner, you just don’t know where to go. You can only get so far with a Google search. You can read and read but sometimes you just need sound advice. You can call other [business owners] but sometimes they don’t know either. I could just call the Alabama SBDC and ask for advice…”
Founded in 1991, Tender Loving Care (TLC) child edu-care center is located in Alberta City, an under-served, low-income suburb of Tuscaloosa, and serves as an educational springboard for children and employees alike. This family-run daycare and education center was born out of a crisis, which served as the catalyst for Mrs. Ollie Cooper, founder, to pursue her dream.
In 1991 Mrs. Cooper’s employer was leaving Tuscaloosa. Threatened with unemployment, Mrs. Cooper decided to use her 25 years of childcare experience and this employment break as the opportunity to pursue her dream: start an affordable and high-quality educational center for children. She started the business using her savings, business and professional experience, and her family’s support. Backed by her passion and management team, Mrs. Ollie Cooper’s goal of becoming an educator flourished beyond a daycare center, overcoming challenges associated with changing regulations, emerging competition, shifting demographics, and natural disaster.
Aside from the usual challenges of working in a price-competitive market with shifting demographics and high degree of regulation, TLC overcame the natural disaster of Tuscaloosa’s 2011 F4 tornado. No amount of education or experience could have prepared TLC or Tuscaloosa community for the devastation of the 2011 tornado. However, founded in a time of personal crisis, the Cooper family was prepared to view this disaster as an opportunity for growth.
Alberta City, one of TLC’s two locations, was the area hardest hit by the 2011 tornado. Many parents were forced to relocate, shrinking TLC’s client base. Despite being one of the few buildings left standing in Alberta City, the widespread devastation closed TLC for a month. Upon reopening, TLC had a new opportunity: in response to the tornado, the City of Tuscaloosa started a Small Business Revitalization loan program to help local businesses rebuild the economic foundation of the devastated communities. Assisted by SBDC Business Advisors, TLC applied for and was awarded a loan. The loan was used for working capital, building renovations, and increase personnel providing much-needed employment opportunities to the community. TLC, with the help of SBDC Business Advisors and the City loan, increased their capacity and added several staff positions.
Thanks to the SBDC-assisted expansion, TLC is able to partner with several local and national organizations to provide the highest quality childcare at low or no-cost to low-income communities. For example, TLC participates in the USDA Food Program and partners with community organizations, such as Tuscaloosa One Place’s Strengthening Families Initiative, to offer valuable resources and training opportunities to parents and teachers in the underserved Alberta City area. TLC also works with Tuscaloosa County Department of Human Resources to place children needing childcare, and to train mothers looking to enter the workforce.
Early Head Start – Child Care partnership, a federal grant that allows TLC to provide free, high-quality childcare and education to low-income children of working parents. A growing body of research indicates that high-quality birth-to-five programs for disadvantaged children can deliver between 6% and 13% per year return on investment, amplifying the potential community impact of TLC.
The growing awareness of these benefits has encouraged new competition: nine elementary schools in Tuscaloosa County now offer pre-kindergarten classes. Additionally, religious organizations, which are not held to the same state certification standards as for-profit daycare facilities, also offer daycare. In response, TLC is shifting their business model to focus on other revenue streams: after-school programs and summer programs. TLC has plans of exploring other potential service offerings to further differentiate their business. For now, however, word of mouth and reputation have continued to make TLC successful.
Since 1991, TLC has grown from 4 employees in one location to 20 employees across two locations. TLC provides employees with opportunities to further their education, leaving a lasting impact on two generations. Several of TLC’s former enrollees are now in pursuit of college degrees. Additionally, some of TLC’s former employees leveraged their experience and educational opportunities through TLC’s continuing education programs to pursue careers with FEMA, working in Washington DC in government, and the Early Head Start program. This dedication and loyalty is most evident in the employees who have been with TLC for 15+ years and sent their own children through the TLC program. Unlike most daycare centers, TLC is able to offer employees stable 40-hour workweeks, vacation, and sick leave, further supporting sustainable community growth.
The ability to turn crises and challenges into opportunities must be in the blood of the Cooper family. Since formation in 1991, the owners and staff of TLC continue to transform the challenges of the highly regulated, competitive industry of childcare into opportunities for growth and prosperity.