Nursery Chains: Staff - Unsung heroes

Behind the scenes of every nursery group are those staff who might not be practitioners, but who are every bit as vital to the smooth running of the setting, as Melanie Defries discovers.

Within every nursery chain there is an assortment of cooks, cleaners or gardeners working tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure children have the best possible early years experiences. This article celebrates just a few of these unsung heroes who go beyond the call of duty.

- Jason Hammond, Maintenance, Puffins of Exeter Childcare Centres

Jason Hammond started working for the chain last year and is already 'part of the furniture', according to operations director Gemma Rolstone.

'Jason came to the nursery not really knowing what he'd let himself in for,' she says, 'but he has become an essential part of the team. He does everything without complaining, he'll take on jobs that aren't necessarily his and he will always help out. If staff need to cover for holidays or absences at one of our other nurseries, he'll drive them there.'

Jason explains, 'I decided to change job and really liked the idea of working in a nursery. I've been here for 18 months now and I do everything - I'm the handyman. I do the painting and decorating, I help people lift things - I just like to be helpful!'

Jason has proved a hit with both children and staff. Gemma says, 'He quickly became aware of fitting the maintenance around the children's needs, and will happily give up evenings or weekends to do work that can't be done with the children there. Nothing is ever too much trouble.'

'The children always watch me while I'm working and ask what I'm doing', adds Jason. 'They also like to try and help me, which is really nice.'

- Pam Stephens, Lunchtime supervisor, Bright Kids

Pam Stephens has been an integral member of staff at the Crabbs Cross nursery, Worcestershire, for more than six years. Pam's role has grown to include covering the breakfast and holiday clubs, as well as lunchtimes. She's gained a reputation for being a practical joker at Bright Kids, and her colleagues say they never know when to take her seriously.

Nursery manager Stephanie Chambers says, 'The children get really excited when Pam walks into the room; they love her and she keeps everyone here happy. She's always hiding people's lunches and she jokes with the children that they have to eat their dinner because she's had to cook it. She will always do extra hours, she's very flexible and comes in at different times every day.'

Pam says, 'I feel I was made for this job. I find I can settle the children quickly, feel really comfortable with them and love to have a laugh and a joke with the staff. I'll always help out and do last-minute things if I can.'

- Denise Hollowood, Cook, Granby Nurseries

Nursery cook Denise Hollowood is a true unsung hero, according to Louise Slazak, manager of Granby Howard nursery, Rotherham.

Louise says, 'Denise is a term-time member of staff, so over the summer break we realise just how much she does and how much she means to us.'

Denise has worked at the nursery for four years and cooks for their 79 children, several of whom have food allergies and require separate meals.

'There are around 12 children with special diets,' explains Denise. 'For example, one boy has a milk allergy and another girl cannot eat a certain type of butter. During the school holidays, the nursery has to get someone to cover my job and the staff realise it's not as easy as it looks!'

Denise has helped to cut back on food costs at the nursery by switching from ordering food online from supermarkets to making contacts with local suppliers. She has also made serving healthy food a top priority.

'Denise plans all the menus and makes sure children are getting their five a day,' says Louise. 'She talks to the children about their meals and makes sure parents know what their children have had to eat. She keeps everything really clean and tidy, and the nursery has received excellent environmental health reports.'

Denise is also popular with the children, who listen out for her food trolley at mealtimes. She says, 'When dinner is prepared, I take it down to the rooms. And if I'm running late, all the children cheer when I finally get there!'

- Rosalind Taylor, Gardener, Tops Day Nurseries

Multi-talented Rosalind Taylor joined the chain as a gardener in 2003, but quickly showed she could turn her hand to almost anything.

Zoe Griffin, nursery manager at the Wimborne, Dorset, branch, says, 'If Ros can't do something herself, she always knows someone who can. She now works as our seamstress and gardener, and she also carries out repairs, drives the minibus and paints murals on the walls. She's amazing.'

As well as sewing all of the chain's seat straps, floor cushions and brightening up the walls with colourful paintings, Rosalind enjoys introducing children to the delights of gardening. She says, 'I've made a digging pit in the garden for the children, as they love to dig. Also, if I find slow worms or bugs, I'll put them in a box and take them in to show the children.'

She is loved by colleagues, parents and children alike. 'The staff adore Rosalind and are always asking for her advice and help,' says Zoe. 'The parents are amazed by some of things she's done. She's lovely with the children and they always wave to her when she is in the garden.'

Rosalind adds, 'I love working here: it's the perfect job for me. I love that every day is different. Plus, I'm going to be a grandmother at the end of the year, so it's giving me lots of practice.'

- Lisa Merritt, Cook, Old Station Nursery

Lisa Merritt is the 'backbone' of the Faringdon, Oxfordshire, setting, according to managing director Sarah Steel.

'Lisa is always willing to go the extra mile,' says Sarah. 'She does school runs, makes birthday cakes and sandwiches, will stay late if necessary and goes out of her way with any special dietary requirements. If someone new starts at the nursery, she will help them settle in by making the child her nominated helper.'

Lisa's work extends far beyond the kitchen. 'I do the banking, the shopping - I just muck in,' she explains. 'The managers now hold their meetings at this branch, because I make a buffet for them and I'll organise goodbye events for staff who leave.'

During Lisa's three years at the Old Station Nursery, she has become a mother figure to staff. She laughs, 'The kitchen is like the Big Brother diary room; the staff come in to talk to me about their problems. I give them a hug and they tell me how they feel.'

She's also popular with the children. She says, 'If children are upset, I'll give them a chocolate biscuit and a cuddle. Sometimes they'll come and help me get the numbers for meals, or we'll go out and see the rabbits.'

'Lisa is unflappable,' adds Liz Clements, the nursery manager. 'Sometimes she is really under pressure, but she takes everything in her stride.'

- John Cattermole, Assistant early years practitioner and cook, Places for Children

John Cattermole joined Woolwich Brookhill Children's Centre, south-east London, last year after 25 years in the building trade.

John says, 'Coming to work here was a change of direction for me. I spent a year doing my childcare NVQ Level 2, which I passed. I love children; they are very tiring, but great.'

John will volunteer for any task, says nursery manager Satvinder Bhurji. 'He is also our handyman: he puts up our cabinets, cleans out the fish and covers any breaks. He has a great relationship with the children.'

Carol Jenkins, managing director, adds, 'He is the first to arrive and is happy to stay late. He is very cheerful.'

'Whenever anyone asks me to do something, I will do it - even getting rid of spiders,' says John. 'I'm just one of those people.'

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