The Queen of Children's Playhouse
With a holistic approach to early childhood care, Children’s Playhouse is a pillar of South Philly with a fearless leader.
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In Damaris Alvarado-Rodriguez’s own words, she literally “bumped into” her career in childcare. It came on a day she met her daughter’s school counselor while doing work in her South Philly community. The counselor, usually on hand to deal with children’s crises, was going through one of her own with a newborn infant. She had no one to take care of the child as she returned to work.
“She was in tears,” Alvarado-Rodriguez remembered in a recent conversation with AL DÍA.
Recently laid off from her own work, Alvarado-Rodriguez offered to take the woman’s child into her own home given the new free time she would have.
“I took the baby, her name was Abigail, and I just fell in love with the child because she was just so beautiful,” said Alvarado-Rodriguez.
Not just a babysitter
Not long after her act of kindness, rumors began to spread around the community of her childcare capabilities and one kid turned into six over the course of a month, all from mothers in similar situations to her daughter’s counselor.
At that point, Alvarado-Rodriguez knew she had a choice to make — stop taking in kids, or take care of them, but do it right.
She chose the latter and went back to school at Chestnut Hill College, where she later graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a concentration in childcare management.
“I never wanted my children to see me as a babysitter,” said Alvarado-Rodriguez. “So it was really important for me for that presentation.”
With the degree in tow, her entrepreneurial journey was set for takeoff.
Cookie’s Daycare Center
It started as it had before she got the degree, taking kids into her own home as a business plan. However, at the end of her block, a commercial space eventually opened up as the tenants moved out. Before they left completely, they stopped by Alvarado-Rodriguez’s house and recommended she move her childcare business there, also giving her their former landlord’s number.
“I said: ‘I want my house back.’ It just became overwhelming. I was handling families and kids all the time, there was no separation,” said Alvarado-Rodriguez.
The move happened shortly after and Cookie’s Daycare Center was born.
Cookie was a nickname given to Alvarado-Rodriguez before she moved to Philly, and was an homage to her home of New York City.
“I wanted a little bit of myself, a little bit of Brooklyn with me,” she said.
One tough Cookie
Back when Alvarado-Rodriguez was growing up there, childcare as a career wasn’t even a consideration, but there were signs.
“I definitely gravitated towards helping children,” she said. “And that was by my personal experience.”
In her own words, Alvarado-Rodriguez was “an angry little child.”
“I was a very lost teenage child and went through a lot of trauma and emotional stages of my life as a teenager,” she said.
She called her home life “unstable.” After her mom and dad divorced, her mom became the primary caretaker for Damaris and her three brothers. Looking back now, Alvarado-Rodriguez knows her mom was doing the best she could, but also remembers bouncing around a lot as her mom found new living situations or Damaris herself was kicked out of schools. For a time, her and her brothers were also put into the foster care system.
“I remember being in that situation and feeling helpless, feeling angry,” said Alvarado-Rodriguez.
Finding more to life
What changed was the emergence of a school counselor who became a figure in her life. She showed a young Damaris that there was more to her life than her then-current circumstances.
“No matter how angry I was, and how mean I tried to be with her, she never gave up,” said Alvarado-Rodriguez. “I wanted to be that person that a child would reflect back on saying: ‘You know, it's not that bad. I could be in a bad situation, but I can make it better.’”
It started for Alvarado-Rodriguez with her own children, supporting and being involved in as many activities as she could with them. When it wasn’t dancing, it was gymnastics, and when her oldest daughter got into softball, Alvarado-Rodriguez learned the game and became a coach.
She wanted to have the same impact and be the same support with every child that walked through the doors of Cookie’ Daycare Center.
“I want all children to know that no matter what their struggles are during their childhood, dealing with these challenges makes the children stronger as they grow up. They learn to empower themselves to make better decisions in their adult lives and have more tools as leaders to make the changes that this world so desperately needs,” said Alvarado-Rodriguez.
From Cookie’s to Children’s Playhouse
A firm believer in slow and steady wins the race in business, her daycare center began with 12 kids transferred over from her at-home setup. She was also one of the few Hispanic women in business in South Philly when Cookie’s first opened.
Over time, the daycare center expanded three times to accommodate more children, and also earned a four-star Keystone STAR rating, which is the highest an early learning center can earn in Pennsylvania. Cookie’s was the first to get the distinction in Alvarado-Rodriguez’s neighborhood.
She also said it was the first all-inclusive daycare of its kind in South Philly, taking in children from families that spanned the community’s growing Hispanic and Asian populations along with those from the longstanding Black and white ones.
But as Cookie’s continued to grow, it became obvious to Alvarado-Rodriguez that she needed to find a new home for her business. For that, she went through the William Penn Foundation to get a Reinvestment Fund grant and open a new, bigger space still in South Philly.
With the move, the Cookie’s name was also retired and Children’s Playhouse was born in 2005. Seventeen years later, Alvarado-Rodriguez's original 12 kids at Cookie’s have exploded to 278, and the number keeps growing every year. There are also now two Children’s Playhouse locations in Newbold and Whitman in South Philly.
“It has been an amazing experience to see Children’s Playhouse growing. Every year, we just add more and more to the program,” she said.
A key to that growth is Alvarado-Rodriguez’s holistic efforts to connect the center with its surrounding community.
“I always wanted to have a childcare center feel more like a community based center,” she said. “Let’s help communities grow.”
Those serviced by Children’s Playhouse include immigrant families, those that don’t speak English, and of all different income levels and nationalities. The services provided include infant and toddler care, pre-K, after school care and Summer camp for kids up to 12 years old.
It’s about the community too
The holistic approach took on a new meaning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which Alvarado-Rodriguez said was her “worst traumatic experience.”
“The last two years has been an emotional roller coaster,” she said.
In addition to shifting Children’s Playhouse to virtual, she also began using her space as a place families could go to get their food for the week. She still remembers the lines wrapped around the block on the first day she opened her doors.
“I'm gonna do it this one time,” was her initial thought. “And then all of a sudden I’m like, I can’t do this once because then how are they gonna eat?”
Soon after, it became weekly for Children’s Playhouse to open and provide food for families in the community. As the pandemic ebbed and flowed, diapers and baby formula were added to the mix and a number of coat drives were organized in the Winter months.
Now, with COVID-19 and the accompanying restrictions slowly dissipating, Children’s Playhouse is now back in-person and doing what it does best in molding young children to respect and support each other and their communities.
“The first day that the kids were allowed back into the building, and I started hearing those echoes in the hallway. [It] made me cry, because that's where the magic happens,” said Alvarado-Rodriguez. “When the kids are laughing, even when they're crying and another friend goes over to console them. You can't do that really on Zoom right, you can't catch those magical moments.”
As for the future, Alvarado-Rodriguez is sticking to her tried and true practice of slow and steady. She said she’s had offers to bring her model of early childhood care to North and West Philly and wants to, but it has to be the right time.
As part of creating the centers, she learns the communities they will serve long before any ground is broken or plans are drawn. With COVID still lingering, that community connection is harder than ever.
“That's the vision,” said Alvarado Rodriguez. “So that children can feel safe and their families can feel safe and comfortable, and take a deep breath when they drop off their children.”
Despite the current difficulties, in five years time, she hopes to bring that sense of relief to families in another community in Philly.