Delaware News

Hugs-n-Hearts Learning Center's close-knit clan marks 20 years

Hugs-n-Hearts Learning Center pioneered influx of kid-centered facilities in Polaris area

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JOSHUA A. BICKEL/THISWEEKNEWS
Bridget O'Brien helps Ethan Litton, 5, with his journal entry during a pre-kindergarten class at Hugs-n-Hearts Early Learning Center. The center, currently celebrating its 20th anniversary, will open a new location in Genoa Township in the fall.
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For the owner of Hugs-n-Hearts Early Learning Center, "family business" has two meanings.

Three of Pam O'Brien's children, who were among the original students at the Polaris-area center, now help her run the business.

But it's deeper than that.

O'Brien said she looks at every employee and student as an extended family member. She said staff members have attended countless weddings, graduations and other milestone celebrations during the business' 20 years of operation.

As in all families, the staff and students have seen each other through some tough times as well.

"We consider ourselves a Hugs family, all of us," she said. "We have gone through a lot together ... everything from, we've lost children, we've lost spouses, we've lost kids here at Hugs."

As the center, 8989 Antares Ave., celebrates its anniversary, O'Brien and staff are planning to add to the family. Work is underway on a second location in Genoa Township, just southwest of Galena.

The expansion will open this fall on Lewis Center Road at the site of the former Freeman's Country Market.

O'Brien said when she started planning to open the first learning center in the early 1990s, U.S. Route 23 and U.S. Route 36/state Route 37 were the only commercial development strips in Delaware County. She decided against those areas and instead purchased a three-acre plot on Antares Avenue, located off a then-quiet stretch of Polaris Parkway.

When the learning center opened in 1994, it largely served parents who lived near Alum Creek Elementary School and had children between 18 months old and kindergarten age. Future or current Olentangy schools parents are still Hugs-n-Hearts' largest group of clients, but the center now transports students enrolled at nine different schools in the district.

The center also finds steady clients in parents who work at JPMorgan Chase's office complex just east of Antares Avenue.

The center began serving school-age children and offering a private kindergarten as it expanded.

"I never thought that it would grow to the extent that it has," O'Brien said of the area and Olentangy schools.

The Antares Avenue site has seen two major additions over the past 20 years and currently has 423 students.

The Lewis Center Road expansion will open with about 140 students.

O'Brien said about 30 families will move their children from the original location to the new building. That hasn't meant empty spots at the original location.

"We immediately filled those spots, and (the new) building is already completely full," she said.

O'Brien said all of that was accomplished through word of mouth, without advertising. Families interested in either location still can ask to be placed on a waiting list or tour the existing center, and O'Brien noted that slots do open on a regular basis.

As the area has grown up around the childcare center, so has the competition. O'Brien said her firm was the first Polaris-area childcare center, but there are now about 20.

She said she gives credit to her staff for helping Hugs-n-Hearts stay successful in the face of that competition.

"The only reason Hugs has been as successful as it has, I really believe, is the teachers who are here," she said.

O'Brien said the center makes it a priority to bring in teachers with strong backgrounds in early-childhood education and give them incentives and pay that will keep them there.

Teacher Jessica Cline said many of the center's 50 staff members are friends or family of other staff members. She said the center's family atmosphere creates an environment that makes retention easier.

"The majority of the teachers who work here have been here for a very long time," Cline said.

While the staff may not change all that often at the center, the curriculum and facilities do.

O'Brien said the center is preparing students for success at school, not simply giving their parents a break.

"They have Spanish and computers and cooking classes and gym classes," she said. "It's not babysitting; it's educating them."

Cline said the gym may be the most-loved addition to the Antares Avenue site.

"The kids love going to gym class," she said. "That's definitely one of everybody's favorites."

Cline said the Galena-area site will not be a direct replica of the original center, but it will offer the similar facilities and resources.

O'Brien said she's had opportunities to expand or franchise her business in the past. The Galena-area location was the first expansion she felt comfortable with, she said, because it serves the same county and school district.

"I had a lot of different opportunities to go to different areas ... taking it to New Albany, Dublin -- but I never wanted to leave my little corner right here," she said.

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