The classroom is dark, and toddlers are stretched out on small cots for their afternoon nap. But Vonnie Occhipinto’s phone just keeps ringing as family, friends and former students call to wish her a happy birthday.
For Occhipinto, known to hundreds of Northeast kids simply as “Ms. Vonnie,” the occasion is bittersweet – this is the last year she’ll be celebrating while surrounded by her students at Children’s Choice Childcare Center, the daycare she founded in 1979.
“I’ve never not loved my job, it makes me sad,” she said. “Even with getting up at 4 a.m. to open at 6, I’ll just miss everything about it.”
Last summer she made the difficult decision to sell her business and retire.
Occhipinto opened her first childcare center at 3221 Independence Ave. and operated at that location for more than 30 years before closing and selling the building. She opened her second Northeast location at 614 Hardesty in 1991, which has remained open.
“The building had been a doctor’s office but there had been a fire, it had water damage,” she recalled.
To get the money to fix it up and meet state child care center codes, Occhipinto took in ironing and sold macrame belts she crafted, anything to get the extra money for paint and supplies. The care and love it would take, that came naturally for her.
Growing up on North Lawn, Occhipinto came from a family of eight children. While her siblings played the usual childhood games, she preferred to spend her playtime with a younger neighbor boy with special needs. She took him for walks around the neighborhood, and even took him to get his hair cut, as he didn’t like anyone to touch his head.
Her first job at age 16 in 1967 was working at the Northeast Day Care on St. John Avenue, one of the very few centers in the neighborhood. She worked part-time afternoons and summers until graduating from Northeast High. Then she married and was soon expecting her first child, so she offered childcare in her home.
After her third child was born, she went back to school and obtained a degree in Early Childhood Education. She worked as a teacher’s aide at Phyllis Wheatley Elementary, but the dream to open her own preschool kept growing.
Following the success of Children’s Choice opening, she was asked by St. John the Baptist Catholic School to create their new preschool program. She also taught art classes there for several years, and later at St. Stephen’s School.
“I would help get the kids down for their naps and then I’d drive over to St. Stephens, teach art, and be back when the kids were getting up from their naps,” Occhipinto said. “I think I did that for three years.”
At one time, Occhipinto owned and operated four centers; one north of the river, one in Richmond, Mo., and the two Northeast locations. The center on Hardesty will remain open under new ownership.
Joanna Restivo, whose father is a lifelong friend of Occhipinto’s son, heard the business was for sale and stepped up. A recent graduate with a degree in Health Sciences and Child Psychology, she also had the dream of one day having her own preschool.
“God sent her to me,” Occhipinto believes. “It was my dream to find someone that loves this like me. I didn’t want to sell until I found the right person – fanatic about cleaning, fanatic about crafts (with the kids). A mini me. And she’s it.”
Restivo is excited to take over but will keep things the same, with the same staff and activities.
Liz Palace (Ms. Liz) has worked alongside Occhipinto for many years. She even retired herself a few years ago, but then came back because she missed it so much.
“Ms. Vonnie and I, we raise these kids like we raised our own kids,” Palace said. “The staff here is like family, I spend more time with them than with my own family.”
That sentiment was echoed by Ms. Kristy, an infant teacher. Her daughter Samantha was once a student of Ms. Vonnie, and said she learns so much just by watching Occhipinto.
“It’s a place like home. She taught me so many things,” she continued, addressing Occhipinto, “And I thank you.”
Another phone call, another gift dropped off. Flowers arrive and Occhipinto remembers each student that remembers her. A student that is now an artist in California thanks Occhipinto for giving her the talent. In turn, Occhipinto simply states to her that she already had the talent, she only encouraged her to use it.
Because she encourages the children to create art and crafts, she is often gifted with special artworks. She keeps them all and displays what she can.
At the time of publication, Occhipinto wasn’t sure what her final day as teacher would be but she’s decided she wants to volunteer with veterans and seniors, helping them create art and crafts.
While she’s excited for a new direction, the years of doing the same thing over and over, sometimes 12-hours a day, from sunup to sundown, Ochipinto believes she’ll miss every minute of it.
“I don’t know how I’ll handle the first day I’m not here,” she said, as the lights come back on and the children get up, ready to celebrate her birthday with candy and cupcakes, and lots of sticky fingers and hugs.