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Gary Whitney
Kris Cooley supervises Tadman Nettles at the day care. Cooley is one of three managers and has worked at the facility for two decades.

When needing a baby sitter, my little 7 1/2-month-old girl has only been with grandparents. We're lucky that we live near my folks, and when my husband's parents are in town, they kick us out of the house for a few days so they can enjoy their granddaughter.

So, the thought of leaving her at a day care — just so I could see a show — seemed like a daunting thing to consider, if not selfish.

But, that's what I was faced with when I covered the Utah Shakespearean Festival a few weeks ago.

I went to Cedar City for the week and took my mom along to help take care of Baby Love (my nickname for our bundle of joy). Not wanting Mom, who so generously agreed to come along on this "working vacation," to be trapped in the hotel the whole trip (and wanting her to see "Cyrano de Bergerac") it was time to bite the bullet and consider child care.

Like most first-time moms, I worried that my baby might have moments where she could fuss more than other babies. I worried that there would be some teenager at her wits' end not knowing how to quiet this screaming kid (or any of the others I was envisioning). I worried that poor Baby Love would be scared without a familiar face around.

Wanting to check it out first, Mom and I walked up to the door of the little red brick house, located across the street from the Randall L. Jones Theatre.

I instantly felt at ease as a woman, a mom herself, answered the door and I saw another "mom" pushing a toddler in a stroller, back and forth, over and over again simply because "that's what works."

Where are the frazzled teenagers? Where are all the screaming kids? Where are the dirty surroundings?

Not here.

The clean little house had kids of all ages, playing, making crafts, sleeping or getting pushed in the stroller.

Kris Cooley, who has worked at the festival child care for "26 years, or something like that," received a call from festival founder Fred Adams "when I was younger. He asked me if I could tend kids at my house."

That was when the child care was just getting started. Now, they have their own house, they're licensed, and they've been allowing parents a night off to enjoy theater without worry.

"The kids have a good time, they love to play," Cooley said. "Our advantage is, they've usually just had a long drive and they're staying in a motel. We have a lot of space and toys, and they can come run around and play."

I went on a tour of their facility, including the miniature bathroom — complete with a toddler-sized toilet for those tiny potty-training legs — and loved what I saw.

The front room of the house is for infants and toddlers. Rocking chairs and age-appropriate toys lined the sunlit room.

"We have a big outdoor area for the kids to play. Lots of sand and sidewalks and trikes." Lots of trikes — which many of the younger kids enjoy racing. Great big trees shade the playground with slides and a jungle gym.

They also have a big garage out back that has a place to play with Play-Doh, and toy tools for the boys who "like hammering."

Downstairs a worker sat at a craft table while the kids worked on projects. "We have lots of different markers and glue and tissue paper and beads, and they can create whatever they want to make — like a crown. We don't do a lot of painting because everyone comes dressed in cute clothes," Cooley said, chuckling.

The shelves were filled with board games, there were a couple of tiny kitchenettes and even a little stage — for aspiring actors.

In a smaller room, there's a little TV with video games. "This is great for the older kids. They get to play two at a time for 15 minutes, then it's someone else's turn."

Not only is USF Child Care fun, it's safe. "I have an early childhood endorsement in elementary ed. The other two managers both have early childhood endorsements and are teachers, also. Many of our employees work at the school (Southern Utah University) — they either teach or are teaching assistants with special-needs kids."

"We get a lot of special-needs kids," Cooley, said. "We always put them one-on-one. Most parents let us know ahead of time so we can plan. That's where we have the advantage of working with special needs or kids with disabilities," Cooley said, referring to the training of the staff. "Blind or in a wheelchair, we always try to have the worker whose had some training in that area."

When checking in, parents and children are given wristbands, which is a different color for children with allergies. Parents also provide their seat numbers and theater, so if problems arise, they can be found, and "there's always somebody with CPR training on staff."

Not to mention, many parents feel better knowing they're right across the street from their kids. "We have nursing mothers come over at intermission a lot."

With a staff of more 30, USF Child Care schedules more than they need, and they'll send workers home if needed. "Yesterday afternoon we had 19 kids, last night we had three." Since walk-ins are welcome, it's difficult to know how many to expect.

"For infants and toddlers, we try to have one-on-one," Cooley said of the adult-to-child ratio. "The kids are all different. Some play nice and are good so it depends. We try to have a 1-to-5 ratio with the older kids."

USF Child Care also hires some teenagers. "All of them have to have a background check and know about SIDS and shaken-baby syndrome. There is an orientation before they can work, and they have to be supervised."

And they provide a valuable service: "They're good at playing individually with kids, kids who are sad — they'll dig in the dirt with them, they'll get involved and play with with them. They'll play with the two to three who are feeling left out," Cooley said, reiterating that infants and toddlers are always with adults.

Dropping Baby Love off for our evening show, I gave my long explanation of what she needs to go to bed. The workers listened, wrote down special instructions, told me they weren't afraid of a crying baby and reassured me that they'd come find me if there were problems.

They never came looking. Baby Love was a champ. They rocked her to sleep, and she slept in the infant room, lined with different cribs, for the rest of the night.

The next day, for the matinee, I was impressed as the workers greeted the returning children by name and the kids excitedly talked about what they wanted to do during this visit: "I want to make necklace," said one little girl whose brother was far more interested in the collection of trikes out back.

After the show, I saw little Baby Love in the window just beaming at the worker who was holding her. Now that makes a mother feel good about the child care. The kids came streaming out, showing off their creations to their parents and telling stories about their visit.

"We try to make it safe and happy," Cooley said.

"Now we're in our next generation. We tended them when they were kids and now we're tending their kids. We get some high school graduation cards and wedding announcements — that's kind of fun to see them grow. You get kind of close to them."


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