For 4 decades, N.J. daycare center has been a labor of love for this couple


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Patricia and Ronald Zeck opened a “little nursery school program” in the basement of their Clarksboro home in 1982. At the time, the total enrollment was two. Later that year, its first graduating class numbered 15.

Since then, Toddlers N’ Tots’ enrollment and size have grown considerably.

In 1984, the Zecks purchased the ranch house next to their Landing Road home and converted it into a childcare center. Additions were constructed in 1994 and again in 2005. And, in 2007, a “state-of-the-art” playground was installed.

It’s been 40 years and the independently-owned daycare center remains a fixture in the community; one with longtime employees and children enrolled whose parents attended before them. There are currently 17 employees on staff and 60 students enrolled. The school welcomes children from infant to age 4 and operates a summer camp for children through grade 5.

Patricia Zeck, 84, said while it was hard work to launch the daycare center and remains so today, it has always been a labor of love. “I always loved being around children,” Peck said, adding there was a real need for a preschool in the community.

“Naturally,” Patricia said, “we had to meet a lot of requirements to open; It wasn’t just open the doors and bring kids in; my husband and I did a lot of work inside.” The first five years of operation, “we ran Toddlers ‘N Tots without receiving one penny for salary. That’s how we were able to build.”

The Zecks, whose three children, David, Ronald Jr. and Linda, were in high school when Toddlers ‘N Tots opened, described how a father enrolled his children in the program because his both he and his wife worked. All three of that couple’s children attended the school.

The infant area opened when Zeck’s best friend told her, “You’re gonna have to open an infant room because no one is gonna watch my son but you.”

When the business got off the ground, Ron Zeck, 86, was working full time. “My husband had a full-time job with the Huntsman Corporation in West Deptford,” Patricia said. “But he is a very gifted man with his hands and he put a lot of time into the building.” In his retirement, Ron continues with maintenance inside and outside the building.

The center has enrolled many children whose parents attended, too. The Zeck’s five grandchildren all graduated from the center. The couple now has five great grandchildren, all of whom attend.

“My grandparents are an amazing example of hard work, dedication and success,” the Zeck’s granddaughter, Laura DiSilvestro, said. “As far back as I can remember, they have dedicated their life to their family and their daycare.

“My siblings and I have wonderful memories of attending Toddlers N’ Tots when we were young. As I grew up, it also became the place of one of my first jobs. Now as an adult with my own three children, I get to watch them grow and learn in the same daycare.”

DiSilvestro said the daycare has been a labor of love for her grandparents.

“Not a single day goes by that my grandparents aren’t working, talking or planning for Toddlers N’ Tots,” she said. “I am truly grateful to have them so present throughout my life and now my children’s life. Their forty years in business is a true example of what blessings look like when you do what you love every day.

“I hope they know just how much our family appreciates all their sacrifices. We are proud of their legacy and look forward celebrating many more years.”

Lauren Neubauer of Mickleton started at Toddlers ‘N Tots in 1992. She was enrolled in the daycare center and later attended summer programs at the facility. Today, Neubauer’s 3-year-old daughter, Emily, attends the same daycare center.

“I went there as a child and for me and my younger sister, Melissa, a lot of our best childhood memories were made at Toddlers ‘N Tots,” Neubauer said. “It was fun, the (staff) was always warm and nice, it was always clean and safe. It was very much a family environment. I wanted my daughter to go somewhere I had peace of mind sending her.”

Neubauer said she especially liked the summer program trips, where her mother would chaperone. “They were always doing something fun and keeping it exciting. We went bowling, went to shows. They always strived to make it fun for the kids.”

Like all daycare centers, the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on Toddlers N’ Tots.

“Like all businesses, daycare, restaurants, etc., COVID was something none of us had ever experienced before,” Patricia said. “All daycare facilities were shut down; there was no money coming into the business at all, but we still had to pay our bills. We had to take our personal money and pay the bills.”

While “most children gradually came back,” she said some of the staff did not return. “That was a big issue … finding good qualified educators, but we have met that need.

We’re still not not where we were pre-COVID. Still not there. We’re down about fifteen percent. But I’m thankful, very thankful that we did not lose this business. Because the number of years in this building we could afford to make this work. I am very sad for daycare schools that had to shut down and lose their businesses in Gloucester County. I know how hard they all work.”

Patricia said she has every confidence that Toddlers ‘N Tots will remain a fixture in Clarksboro.

“If and when I retire, my daughter, Linda, who has been a third-grade teacher for 34 years, will become director,” Patricia said. “But, I love doing what i’m doing. I love coming to the school and seeing the children, the parents and my staff. God has blessed us tremendously in this business.”

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