Neighborhood day care center provides hope

Pat Sisson Column

It was another gorgeous day at Luv N-Care Day School, at 5934 W. Diversey Ave. in Chicago, and owner Brandon Linden was doing what he loves best: educating “his” kids.

A large, bearded Viking of a man with a wide grin, Linden showed his 66 students, aged 2 to 8, how to count money. Sean, a shy 4-year old, got his attention. “I got all the money because I’m a drug dealer,” Sean said. “I know all the neighborhood.” Linden wasn’t surprised by the boy’s statement. He had seen tattoos on Sean’s arms a few days earlier that he recognized as gang symbols.

Linden, who is in his mid-thirties, has owned Luv N-Care for the last two years. It’s a school and day care center in Chicago’s Belmont-Cragin neighborhood. He has found that the stories his students tell him are the best way to learn about the neighborhood.

“This area is what sociologists call a buffer zone,” Linden pointed out to me. The school sits in an area between the rich, gentrified Portage Park neighborhood and the poorer, working-class Austin neighborhood.

“It represents what many have found to be an interesting phenomena in this city, the ability to define it block-by-block,” Linden said.

The area now straddles Puerto Rican and Mexican neighborhoods, with Diversey serving as the border, a situation that has led to many gang fights in the area. “The neighborhood has gotten worse in the last two year,” Linden said. “But it is important to realize that it has absolutely nothing to do with anybody’s ethnicity.”

A vast majority of the parents that use Luv N-Care are working hard to earn scant amounts of money from low-paying jobs, dispelling the typical welfare stereotype. Linden points to loopholes in public aid programs and go-nowhere jobs as catalysts for these desperate situations. For example, the Day Care Action Council of Chicago gives out day care subsidies for poor mothers. If their incomes happen to rise as little as a dollar an hour, they enter a different day care bracket and receive much less aid, making that higher paying job actually more expensive when daycare expenses are figured in.

Take the story of 4-year old Maria. An aid program run by the Day Care Action Council gave her a pair of glasses. When her brother broke them a few days later, she couldn’t get a new pair because her mom had found a higher paying job. She hasn’t had glasses for eight months.

“There is a great misconception about welfare,” Linden said. “These people are working because it’s hard to get benefits if you don’t work. The daily grind of that work, however, pretty much does it to you.”

That explains why Brandon sees a lot of abused children. Parents who feel stuck tend to lash out at one of the things they feel keeps them tied down.

These children have to struggle just to make it to school on a regular basis. But they still have just as much fun as kids from more well-off neighborhoods, and it takes a while for their bleak situations to really dawn on them.

I asked Linden how he could be motivated to come to work every day, with the burnout rate for this type of job so high.

“I love the kids; they are my life. But something my dad said to me, he was a cop, always resonated with me,” Linden said. “Your job is to speak for those who don’t have a voice.”