You might not know it from looking at the unassuming building from the outside, but tucked inside one Austin home is a utopia for early childhood development that recently won the “unsung hero” award from the Women’s Business Development Center.
Vision Builders Early Childhood Learning Center, in the 1700 block of North Austin Boulevard, is run by the mother-and-son team of Debra and Levell Baker, who’ve been caring for young children since 1993.
Debra Baker started the center after her last job was moved to Mexico; she began taking child care classes at the YMCA, and the business has grown ever since.
“This, being a businesswoman, I never thought would be my dream,” Debra Baker said. “But the dream is here.”
Every where you look, in every nook and cranny in the center, there is some kind of activity for children to learn — from practicing their ABCs to exploring outer space, and from stations for reading and coloring to areas for playing house and taking naps — that all fit in with what Levell Baker called their “holistic approach” to child development.
“You’re not just developing children, you’re developing the whole family,” Levell Baker said. “For a child to be successful in life, once they leave us, they must first have the academics.”
Debra Baker moved to Austin from the South Side when she married, and she’s been “a pillar of the community” ever since, said Galewood resident Frederic Rogers.
A father of three boys – twin 4-year-olds and a 2-year-old – Rogers credits the Bakers with helping one of the twins improve his speech, which was delayed.
“He’s come a long way, and I thank Ms. Baker a lot for that,” Rogers said. “She’s got the hands-on approach and goes slow with them, you know, takes her time with them.”
Rogers said he’s also thankful for the way the Bakers teach the children manners and how to behave socially, a sentiment echoed by another parent of twins, Maywood resident Brenda Moore.
“To have them in an environment with other kids, it helps them to come out of their shell,” Moore said.
Moore’s 5-year-old daughter was a little shy before starting at Vision Builders. But now, the young girl is more outgoing and has made friends at the center.
“That took a lot of the pressure off of me, as a parent,” Moore said. “Those types of things help relax my spirit to know that they’re OK.”
Levell Baker started helping his mother with the business in the early days before deciding to head off into the real estate business. Then in 2009, when the recession hit, he realized child development was his true calling.
It happened one night, he said, while sitting on the porch with some of the children; he became overwhelmed with a renewed sense of purpose.
“It was literally something came over me and it was like, ‘This is where you’re supposed to be.’”
Now the Bakers are working on plans to expand the business in 2016 to a larger space where they can operate a day-care facility and serve up to 100 children.
Whether they will be successful in their expansion may depend on how the state is able to resolve its current budget woes, as many of the center’s clients are families who receive some kind of state child care subsidy, Levell Baker said.
Regardless of how things work out, Debra Baker seems happy with what she and her son have been able to accomplish so far.
“I just love to see my kids grow,” she said. “That’s the main thing, just to see them grow up.
“It brings a joy to my heart, just to know that I did have an impact in their heart.”