Maywood Native, ABC Toon Town Owner Celebrates 20 Years Of Caring

Saturday, July 7, 2018 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews 

Featured image: Bernadette Hicks, a Maywood native and owner of ABC Toon Town in Oak Park, celebrated 20 years in business on Saturday. | Shanel Romain 

It takes a village to raise a child.

Bernadette Hicks — a Maywood native and Proviso East graduate — knows that old adage more intimately than most.

She owns and operates ABC Toon Town child care center — one of the few African-American-owned childcare providers in Oak Park, where she currently lives.

But her childcare center’s selling point isn’t that it’s black-owned, Hicks said.

“We have a mixed community of all races here — Asian, African-American, Caucasian,” Hicks said during an interview on July 7, as she and at least 100 other people, including many of her clients, celebrated the center’s 20th year in business (a bounce house was setup in the facility’s parking lot).

“It’s a nice melting pot and I’m very proud to say that, even though we’re African-American-owned, our program is based on quality, so we sell quality — not the fact that we’re African-American-owned,” she said.

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Attendees at Saturday’s celebration sit under a mural by Chicago artist Damon Reed, who Hicks commissioned to install art both inside and outside of the facility. | Shanel Romain 

The center, Hicks explained, has a silver rating from ExceleRate Illinois, a prominent quality rating system for childcare providers.

Hicks is also a member of the Collaboration for Early Childhood Care and Education — a taxpayer-funded organization designed to spread early childhood care awareness and resources among residents in Oak Park and River Forest.

Hicks added that her center services around 125 young people, ages 6 months to 12 years old, in a variety of ways — a nursery, preschool, and before- and after-school programs all take place in the center, which employs around 25 people, Hicks said (herself included).

Throughout its 20 years, the center has weathered some storms, not the least of which is the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis, which has spelled doom and gloom for many early childhood providers.

Hicks said that ABC has been largely inoculated from the state’s chaos due to sound budgeting and because the center doesn’t rely solely on state funding. She said that, despite the budget crunch, she hasn’t had to lay off anyone or cut anyone’s hours. 

The deeper reason for those two decades of salience, though, lies in the center’s moral foundation, which was laid by Hicks’ late mother-in-law, Lilla Hicks, Hicks said.

“This started in the summer of 1998 and my mother-in-law founded it,” Hicks said. “Before this, she ran a home-based daycare for about 15 years in Oak Park. I’m very honored to continue the legacy that was her vision initially.”

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Hicks said that her childcare center is a “mixed community of all races.” | Shanel Romain 

Hicks said that her mother-in-law envisioned a center that operated not as a business, but as an extended family.

“This is not transactional,” Hicks said. “We can’t do this without the families, who we consider our partners. We work together as a unit. Nurturing, loving and educating is our culture.”

Joy Ward, the center’s director, said that the culture that Lilla incubated decades ago is why she’s been at ABC for 12 years now, starting as a teacher and working her way up to her current position.

“I stayed because of the family environment that I felt when I came here,” Ward said during the Saturday festivities. “We work together and the focus is on the children. That’s very important.”

For some of the center’s parents, that culture is a reason why they keep sending their children to ABC.

Two years ago, Cheree Moore was laid off from her job, prompting concerns about how she’d pay for her children’s daycare.

“I was laid off for eight months and Ms. Bernie was flexible with us in terms of letting us bring our daughters during the day, because it was hard for me to look for a job,” Moore, said. “A lot of families need that extra support.”

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Hicks, with her parents, Robert, fourth from right, and Genevia Williams Sr., and her siblings on Saturday in Oak Park. The Williams still reside in Maywood. | Shanel Romain 

Forest Park parent Alisha Harris said that her two 5-year-old twins have been at ABC since they were three months old and she intends to keep them their, in the before- after-school programs, even after they graduate.

“I really trust them with my kids,” said Harris.

The center’s village vibe even extends to the physical structure. The 15,000-square-foot building, located at 411 South Blvd., was once home to Dorolyn Academy of Music — a venerable tenant in its own right — before ABC moved in last year. Prior to then, the daycare had operated out of two facilities on Harrison Street.

Hicks commissioned the prominent Chicago artist Damon Lamar Reed to create murals on both the exterior and interior of the building, brightening up a space that had once been rather standard office fare.

The interior, once dark and dated, has been reconfigured, softened and opened up to let in more natural light. The space extends from Hicks’ personality, said one of her longtime friends, Gwendolyn Young.

“She’s one of those people who I think everyone should have in their lives,” Young said on Saturday. “She’s integral, she’s kind, she’s generous, she’s caring. She just has a calming spirit and a genuine love for your child — the whole child.” VFP 

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