"Due to a new staff configuration, your services are no longer required."
Rita Laurie Collier, 25, was five months pregnant when, in August 1981, she read those words from her employer, the Montessori Children's House in Silver Spring.
"After two years as an aide, assistant teacher and substitute teacher they told me they didn't need me anymore," Collier recalled. "I didn't even look for another teaching job while I was pregnant, because I knew I would have to leave just as the children were getting used to me."
Collier was not alone. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, January figures show that 11.4 million people are unemployed nationally, and that 92,400 live in the Washington metropolitan area.
But the unemployment line is one person shorter now. Collier is making her lifelong dream come true.
"My goal has always been to teach children in a day-care setting," Collier said. She began working toward that goal when she was 12--babysitting after school, on weekends and school holidays. At 17 she taught in a church-sponsored program in which she led nature walks, supervised creative play and helped 3- to 5-year-olds learn to write their names.
In 1978 Collier completed Montgomery College's child care curriculum--64 hours in child development designed to meet the needs of 2- to 6-year-olds.
After their daughter, Miranda, was born in December 1981, Collier and her husband, Martin, began converting the basement of their Kensington residence into a day-care home, which they have registered with Montgomery County. Being registered with the county means that a home can take in up to six children; if there are more than six children, the facility has to be considered a day-care center, with stricter standards and more help.
There are around 600 registered family day-care homes in Montgomery County now, said Alice Littlefield, supervisor for family day-care registration for the county's Department of Social Services, adding that her office last year received 52 complaints about unregistered homes in county. "I wouldn't want to speculate," she said, of unregistered homes, "but people say there are thousands." To be registered, an applicant must attend an orientation meeting and have an interview with a registration social worker.
In Prince George's County, the family day-care registration office has registered 156 family day-care homes, said Brenda Bell of the division of social services. She refused to say how many complaints were received about unregistered homes.
The Colliers carved up their basement into learning areas for science, art and music. A make-believe kitchen, nap area and plenty of room to play were also included.
"We had to paint the outside of the house," Martin Collier said, "put locks on the laundry room, replace a few doornobs and build a fence in the back yard to comply with health department standards."
"The L. C. Laurie Collier Day Care Center is more than a babysitting service," his wife asserted. "My aim is to teach young children, through play, to read, write and count. If teaching is done correctly, children can absorb important information before entering elementary school."
The children are fascinated by the animals in the household. "We have three cats, two dogs, seven fish, two hamsters and a bird," Collier said. Rainbow, the peach-faced lovebird, was introduced during an art project for which the chidren made a multicolored parrot of their own out of construction paper.
Julie, a 14-year-old poodle, is the children's favorite pet. She plays "police dog" and often barks to let Collier know when someone is misbehaving.
"Most of the toys I use are 'self-correcting.' " Collier picked up a puzzle to explain. "The chicken only fits in this space. That way the child can't fail. When he completes the puzzle he can feel good about his accomplishment, eager to move on to more complex toys."
The Colliers were high school sweethearts at Eberhard, a private college preparatory school on 16th Street NW. They both come from large families and feel that having other children around is a definite plus for their 1-year-old daughter. "Miranda is our only child, but she'll have the advantage of growing up around other children . . . without the disadvantage of a 24-hour-a-day sibling rivalry," Collier said.
The Collier day-care home is open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. What has having a business in the basement done to the Collier home life? "It's kind of weird to be eating breakfast and have all these kids running around or just staring at me," Martin Collier remarked, "but I have to admit I'm impressed with what my wife is doing."
"My only regret," he added, "is that I'd really like to have a pool table in the basement."