The world looked a lot different in 1989. The Berlin Wall was about to fall. The Cosby Show was the top-rated TV program. General Motors was America’s largest corporation. Gasoline cost $1 a gallon.
That year, Patti Clauson got a phone call from a friend at church, Julie Gallagher. “We’re thinking of starting this Mom’s Day Out thing at church,” Julie said. “It’s kind of like daycare preschool. What do you think? Would you like to help?”
At the time, Patti and Tim’s oldest daughter, Chelsea, was 3 ½, and Patti was pregnant. They had thought about preschool, but money was an issue and this didn’t seem worth the extra expense, Patti remembers. Julie’s call changed everything.
“I’m thinking, OK. Chelsea would get free preschool. I would get paid. It’s like three blocks from our house, at our church … Everything just clicked,” Patti says.
Mom’s Day Out programs had existed for a few years in the South, but not the Midwest. The idea was to provide a few hours of childcare once or twice a week so busy moms could run errands or just enjoy a short break.
First Free did a three-month trial run in 1989, caring for about 50 preschool children. It was popular enough that it went to a full school year in 1990, and has been here ever since: Mondays and Fridays, 9 to 1. After serving as a childcare worker and then assistant director, Patti has been director since the early 2000s. At times during the 1990s, she remembers, there were close to 200 kids (with a large waiting list) and 25 staff members. It’s a little smaller today, but still a beehive of activity.
On the verge of her retirement, we spoke with Patti about it all.
It was a different era when this all started, of course. What made MDO such a big thing early-on?
This was before public school offered free preschool. Families that wanted the safety of a bible-based preschool would come here. Or, people would be new in town. There were a lot of Sunstrand or Chrysler people. They didn’t know anyone and the wives would be home with the kids. They didn’t have any idea what to do. But they said, well, a church would be a safe place. They were all kinds of religions, but it didn’t matter. They said, “A church is going to be safe. It’s the only way I can do my appointments and get out to get things done.” They didn’t really care that it was Bible-based.
But, you know what happens. The kids are learning. They’re doing their color sheets with a Bible verse on them. And where does the craft go when they go home? On their refrigerator. So it’s just a great way to spread the gospel using these little missionaries who are 2, 3 and 4 years old. I love that part of it.
What were some positive things about it that surprised you?
Mom’s Day Out staff from the 2019-20 school year—MDO’s 30th anniversary.
I never realized how much of a ministry it was going to be to the staff. The staff’s growth spiritually was just huge. I’ve had so many staff that stay working in the program because it is a sisterhood. They would say things like, “Nobody ever gives me a birthday card. Nobody ever asks me about how they can pray for me.” At the beginning of every month we get together and talk— “What can we do? How can we pray for you?” And it seems like there is always someone on staff who says something like, “I need some prayer. I just found a lump.” And somebody else says, “I’ve been through that.” And then they partner up.
And all of a sudden you are seeing these relationships growing. We’ve had staff close to 70 years old and we’ve had staff who were 18. And they all have commonality and they all grow in their faith. That has been the biggest thing. Someone said, “I’ve never had a job where you get paid to sit for the first half hour in prayer and sharing needs.” And then afterwards they go to their classroom and two or three staff will pray together before the class starts.
I’ve got staff who come in and they may be having major issues at home. They’re in tears, and we pray for them in the morning. Then they go to their class, and they have to switch it. The kids are coming. But when the kids come, they’re giving hugs, talking back and forth. All of a sudden everything just shifts off and they realize, This is why I come. I have a purpose here.
That care has extended to parents, too, right?
We’ve had Brenda Buzzard come on Monday mornings and she will give extra prayer. She’ll see if a parent is having a problem and ask, “Hey, can I pray for you?” And people always say yes. She’ll go sit on the couch with them and just shower them with love and prayer. You just don’t get that in other places.
That has to feel so good, to know the impact MDO is having in various ways—staff, parents and kids.
I’ve got a box full of notes and cards from parents about how this program has met such a need and has helped them develop friendships and a path. They come without knowing anyone. Their child is in the program two, three, four years. They develop friendships. All of a sudden his friends are in school together or they have a path with Summerama.
What are some of the changes you have seen in families across 34 years?
It started off with moms needing to go out just to get their nails done or have a doctor appointment or whatever. And now it’s parents working. Dads bringing them. Lots of grandparents who now are caring for their kids’ kids. So that’s been a big change.
And kids are always advancing. They know their alphabet by age 2, it seems. Everything has gotten so advanced.
And MDO has never been just about babysitting, right?
We love to be able to say they play with a purpose. There are other programs that have very structured things where they have to learn this, this and this by the time they’re a certain age. With us, everything comes from the Bible. We’ll take the Noah’s Ark story and we’ll use that story to talk about colors, or weather, patterns, animals.
I know it’s also not lost on anyone that our church is a fantastic venue for all this.
Look at all they give us. We have an indoor playground, we have two outdoor playgrounds, we have all this land to use, and a full-sized gym. Pretty nice. We are very blessed. If we had to start paying for a building like this, there’s no way.
And that’s the thing with Mom’s Day Out. We were able to keep it affordable because we didn’t have to charge for those extras.
Our church family has treated MDO as a ministry too, right? Have an example or two?
Glenn Johnson. He’s come every year for about 10 years and has done Moses. And the kids are just in awe. He can talk for a half hour to 4-year-olds and they will not move. It’s amazing. And for someone like Glenn, it just fuels him, too. He’ll come with his props, his staff, his belt.
We’ve had Nanette (Felix), who plays the harp in church. She’s just started coming this year with her harp. And the kids were so excited. We were reading the story of David, and she brought three harps.
One year we had Reading Time with Grandma. Some of the older ladies in the church would come and sit in the rocking chair and read a story to the kids. A lot of the kids don’t have grandparents around. And the grandma might not have her grandkids around. So it was bridging that gap.
What’s your hope as you step away?
For me or for the program?
For me, (deep exhale). I’ve got nine grandkids now. Helping my mother-in-law. I’ve got a really close aunt who’s in a health center. And then obviously, travel. We are looking forward to that.
The program is being put into Teresa Hubbard’s hands, and she has so many new great ideas. I don’t feel like I stifled the ideas from growing, but she is embracing it. It will be good.
Is there a story that sticks with you, that says, “This is why I do this”?
In the Owl class, the oldest class this year (4-year-olds), they have a book called Who Took the Cookies from the Cookie Jar? Each page is a picture of one of the students. They’ll say “Betty took the cookies,” and she’ll say no and then they go on to the next one. And at the end, somebody has to be the cookie monster. That was Miss Patti.
That was back in September. And since then, every time they see me, “It’s the cookie monster!”
I see them all in the morning and sign them in. And I just have a great feeling when I go into the rooms because they all know me. Even the babies. They’ll wave at me and say hi. It’s something that I’ll definitely miss. I feel loved every time I come here.
Miss Patti reads Who Stole the Cookie from the Cookie Jar to the 2022-23 Owl Class.
A retirement reception is planned for Patti from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Monday, May 15 in the Kids lobby. Everyone is invited.
Thank you , Patti, for your service to the mothers and children of MOM’s Day Out.
What fun it was to work with you the year between our Alaska ministry and our Canada missions. You were an incredible help and it was wonderful knowing that you were stepping into the role I had filled for that short year. Mom’s Day Out always brings a smile to my face and to our adult kids that benefitted from their time hanging out in the church. Congratulations! Thank you for your faithfulness in serving the Lord through this vital ministry of First Free.