Three-decade child care provider moves toward threshold of another life

By Terrance BellJanuary 11, 2023

Three-decade child care provider moves toward threshold of another life
Kim Bonner poses in her classroom Dec. 12, 2022, at the Sisisky Child Development Center. Bonner, who has spent more than three decades in child care, said her longevity is due to "passion and patience." She is set to retire in May. (Photo Credit: Terrance Bell) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT LEE, Va. – Kim Bonner has spent 34 years as a Fort Lee child care provider.

The fact merits repeating and warrants context for those not familiar with the complexity of child care: The Sisisky Child Development Center employee has spent more than 8,000 days calming cries of all kinds; washing tiny, sticky hands; wiping runny noses; changing soiled bibs and smelly diapers; dipping spoons into Gerber jars; reading books aloud; kissing ‘boo boos’ to no end; and quelling contentious conflicts among a myriad of other tasks.

Bonner is scheduled to retire May 31, and she harbors no regrets about leaving love and livelihood for something greater.

Amazingly, her physical being bears little of the burdens she has endured the past three-and-a-half decades. There are no signs of an overworked brow or crow’s feet. Bonner walks erectly and moves assuredly. Her youthful demeanor suggests she could easily continue in her job for another five years.

Bonner’s tone of finality suggests it not a consideration, but if it was, she would lean on what has always gotten her through.

“I have passion and patience for what I do,” Bonner said with seasoned confidence. “Without them, no one can do this job because you not only have to deal with the kids, but you also must deal with the personalities of teachers, parents and administrators. It can be stressful.”

That’s some revelation -- that child care is a multi-faceted undertaking that is more difficult than popular perception. Working parents who suddenly became daytime caretakers as a result of the pandemic were reminded of such. They became more empathetic to child care pros such as Bonner, who has persisted through years of evolving child care standards.

“I’m looking forward to retirement and doing something different,” she the 64-year-old, who cares for infants and toddlers at Sisisky. “I get to spend time with my grandkids and my mom, because she is up in age (and requires daily care), so, I will be able to do a lot more for her.”

It was her mother, Hattie Franklin, a military spouse, who influenced Bonner to pursue a career in child care.

“I watched my mom (growing up),” she said. “She would become foster moms to children who were left at the hospital because no one wanted them. That’s something that stayed with me.”

Three-decade child care provider moves toward threshold of another life
Child care provider Kim Bonner holds toddler Lauren Lipsey during a playtime session Dec. 12, 2022, at the Sisisky Child Development Center. Bonner has cared for thousands of children over the course of a 34-year child care career at Fort Lee. (Photo Credit: Terrance Bell) VIEW ORIGINAL

Franklin once fostered six siblings because she feared they would be separated. Bonner began supporting her mother’s child care pursuits at the age of 13.

While attending Petersburg High School, Bonner worked her first job here in transportation, and then moved into contracting. She was hired as a provider in 1988 when the CDC was comprised of a single building near the golf course, and not the multi-facility complex now situated at the corner of Battle and Yorktown drives.

Having cared for thousands of children throughout her career, Bonner said one of the most memorable was a special needs child she cared for years ago as an hourly provider at the Yorktown CDC. The youngster, a four-year-old girl, suffered from a spinal condition and was unable to walk.

“She said to me, ‘When I grow up, I want to be just like you -- I want to be a teacher.’”

The words – a stirring reminder of her value and purpose – melted Bonner down to her core. They were sweet and penetrating, she said, but more importantly, came from someone who saw Bonner as a manifestation of her own desire to overcome obstacles.

“Here was this little girl who wasn’t thinking about the fact she couldn’t walk,” said Bonner.

As the youngster was inspired by Bonner, the provider gained inspiration as well.

“It made me want to learn more about how to work with special needs kids,” said Bonner. “I went to John Tyler (Community College) and took two classes to increase my knowledge.”

Although working with special needs children was not a specific job, Bonner often stepped up to the challenge. She has cared for those afflicted with a wide range of diseases and conditions such attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and spina bifida.

Bonner also has administered care for children with such rarities as macroglossia (enlarged tongue) and cat’s cry syndrome, a genetic condition in which babies cry in high-pitched tones.

Introduced to special needs care when hourly services were offered at the CDCs, Bonner became enamored with seeing children progress and develop. The pace and unpredictability of the program were attractive, too, because children, parents and care plans were constantly changing. Altogether, they presented Bonner with rich learning opportunities.

Three-decade child care provider moves toward threshold of another life
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Child Care Provider Kim Bonner entertains children at the Sisisky Child Development Center Jan. 11, 2023. "Grandma," as she is known, performs a myriad of tasks daily for the children in her care. (Photo Credit: Terrance Bell) VIEW ORIGINAL
Three-decade child care provider moves toward threshold of another life
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Sekani Smith and another toddler marvel at bubbles produced by their care provider, Kim Bonner, during a play session at Sisisky Child Development Center Jan. 10, 2023. (Photo Credit: Terrance Bell) VIEW ORIGINAL

“I’ve met people from all over the world,” she said.

Those were the mothers, fathers, grandparents and others with whom she formed relationships to best provide for children in her care. Those relationships were often more than friendly greetings during drop-offs and pickups. Some trusted in Bonner so much they wanted more of her.

“I’ve had parents who offered me a job in Pakistan,” she said, recalling that she honorably turned down the opportunity.

By and large, parent cooperation and collaboration are key components to care. There are times, however, when parents are not the best advocates for children. That can be apparent following calls from providers to pick up sick children, Bonner said. The parents often balk at doing so.

“Parents need to remember that if their child is sick and not able to interact, and you see they are not feeling well, you shouldn’t bring them in,” she said. “If they eventually get calls from providers due to illness, I feel they should understand and not get upset at us because we are doing our job.”

Parents need a back-up plan when children are ill, so there is minimal disruption to their duties, she added.

On the other hand, most providers understand the importance of providing the best child care possible for those wearing uniforms. They understand the unique demands of military life, and the criticality of creating conditions in which military members can commit themselves to service without the preoccupation of worrying about their children.

“We’re here for them,” said Bonner. “We want them to go about their jobs feeling comfortable, knowing their children are well-taken care of and knowing we are doing everything in our powers to help.”

Staff Sgt. Stephanie Swann is one parent who knows Bonner has her back.

“She’s grandma,” said the Soldier who used the term comfortably and who has two children under Bonner’s care at Sisisky. “She takes care of them like they’re her own. All the children are special to her, and that’s what I love. She cares for them just as she would her own.

“I love Ms. Kim.”

In 34 years of child care, the rewards have been infinite, said Bonner. Occasionally, she gets to meet in adult form those whose lives she made contributions to years ago. It happened recently when she came across a 20-something young man who looked familiar.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God! ‘I was your pre-toddler teacher,’” she exclaimed to the individual after a long gaze. “I was excited.”

Bonner responds similarly when pointed out by parents. “It’s a good feeling when they recognize you for what you’ve done,” she said.

Dina Lang, the Sisisky director, said Bonner will leave a huge hole in the operation due to her “skill level, years of experience and her ability to mentor the newcomers,” she said.

Not least, said Lang, Bonner’s passion and commitment can never be understated.

“It’s going to be a big void,” she said.

Bonner said her departure is likely to be a mixed bag of feelings.

“I’m a sensitive person, and I know me – I’m going to cry,” she said. “There will be tears of joy, tears of sadness, but I have to do what I have to do.”

In retirement, when she is not tending to her mother or grandchildren, Bonner will be able to focus attention on her favorite TV mysteries and documentaries and home decoration and renovation projects.

She also can take a shot at travel opportunities if she gets the urge. In the backdrop, however, will be her genuine love for children and the strength and resilience required to endure more than 8,000 hours caring for thousands who may never know the full breadth of her work.