Bright Beginnings at Chambliss Center for Children

Amanda Ellis

When you consider the concept of talent development and matching the right people with the right jobs – jobs they enjoy, are good at, that provide the right level of income and flexibility − you probably think of college courses, training programs, internships, perhaps books that tell you what color your parachute is.

Particularly if you don’t have children, quality child care might not occur to you as an important element. Yet for any parent or guardian, it’s a big consideration.

Michelle Pace, who cares for Lily, her 6-year-old granddaughter, works “a bunch of jobs” seven days a week, and child care has been difficult at times.

“I had family members watching her, but it was just not dependable,” Pace says.

She works three jobs. She’s a realtor, works 12-hour restaurant shifts Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and is a staff member at Memorial Hospital with shifts often starting at 5 a.m.

“Lily's gone to a few area daycare centers, but I was struggling because I couldn't work double shifts,” Pace says. “People that have jobs that are not normal hours − hospital workers, police officers, restaurant workers, it's so hard.”

A co-worker at Memorial told Pace about Chambliss Center for Children and their 24-hour child care, including holidays and weekends. She’s been bringing Lily to Chambliss for about six months and says “it’s one of the best blessings that’s ever happened.”

“Chambliss kept us from being homeless. It allowed me to work enough so that we can make ends meet.”

Supporting a Community’s Child Care Needs

Chambliss Center for Children began in 1872 as a food and clothing pantry for orphaned girls in downtown Chattanooga. Soon it grew into an orphanage for boys and girls, with influxes of children during the yellow fever epidemic and the Great Depression. Many Depression-era orphans weren’t abandoned because of their parents’ death, but because they had to go elsewhere to seek work, and would often retrieve the children later.

As more children needed help, the agency moved to its current location in Brainerd in 1939. The area was rolling hills and farmland at that time.

You'll still see much of the original flooring and brick in the building. Light switches are up high so that little hands can't reach them. Hand rails on the stairs are low, and the stairs are difficult for adults to walk on, because they're small and shallow for short legs.

Lesley Berryhill, the agency’s Director of Special Projects and Events, says there aren’t any ghost stories associated with the old building. On the contrary, many adults who lived in the orphanage as children have come back to share happy experiences from their time there.

“Although many children came here under unfortunate circumstances, everyone I have met that lived here when we were an orphanage had great memories of making friends here and much appreciation for the care they received,” Berryhill says.   

The facility operated as an orphanage until the foster care system emerged in the 1950s and 60s, when the agency’s numbers began dwindling.

“We commissioned a study to see how we could meet the community’s child care needs and realized that Chattanooga was a very industrial town,” Berryhill says. “We had a lot of second and third shift positions, and we didn't have people to fill them, because those people needed child care.”

Thus, Care Around the Clock launched as the first such program in the state. They’ve operated the 24-hour, 365-day child care program ever since.

“We’re the perfect example of an agency responding to our community’s specific needs,” says Phil Acord, President & CEO of Chambliss Center for Children. “In our assessments, 100 percent of our parents say ‘I could not attend school, have a job, work full-time if it weren’t for Chambliss.’ Maybe they work extended hours or weekends. We understand the importance of that family support.”

Chambliss Center for Children provides three full meals and a snack each day, with a more homey area of the building for play, TV and homework time after 6 p.m. and on weekends.  

“We definitely don't want the kids to feel like they're in a classroom 24 hours a day,” Berryhill says.

If their parent works late or third shift, the children go to bed in this area as well. The goal is accessibility for parents.

“We’re here when they need us,” Berryhill says. “We do before and after school care for school-aged kids, summer camp, we cover spring break, fall break, Christmas break, even snow days. If Hamilton County schools are closed, we are open. Parents can bring their children here. If they're working second or third shift, their child can be here.”

Many parents couldn’t be part of the workforce without this type of service.

Angels Sing

Chambliss charges fees on a sliding scale based on the family’s income. About 80 percent of Chambliss families are single parent homes, with many at or below poverty level. Average cost at Chambliss per that system is about $75 weekly, compared to a market rate of $200 and up per week.

“I understand they’re taking care of your most prized possession, so I understand why child care is expensive,” Pace says. “But when it’s such a big expense, and you also can only work during typical business hours, that’s a challenge. I still hear angels sing when I open the doors here with Lily.”

One of Berryhill’s favorite examples about the organization’s unique offerings is a mother who works security at the airport, and reports at 4 a.m. She begins her day dropping off her two children at 3:30 a.m. Staff put them back to bed and in a few hours get them up and ready for school, including breakfast. The older child catches the bus; the younger child goes to one of the agency’s pre-kindergarten classrooms, and mom picks both up in the afternoon.

Acord shares an example of a mom who unexpectedly found herself caring for her three children alone.

“She initially got a job as a certified nursing assistant bringing home $300 a week and child care centers were going to charge her – you guessed it − $300 a week for child care. Our sliding scale keeps child care affordable even for multiple children.”

A Unique Model

Chambliss Center for Children’s model is unlike any other in the country. In addition to the Brainerd main campus, the agency operates two other locations, offers child care for teachers inside 12 Hamilton County Schools and manages four independent child care centers in the area. These have their own boards of directors but Chambliss Center for Children handles operations such as accounting and staffing issues. This network of agencies cares for more than 700 children daily in their Extended Childcare Program, from six weeks to age 12.

In the six weeks to pre-kindergarten age range, the agency emphasizes that they provide not only child care, but high-quality early childhood education, with 100 percent of kids in their care leaving ready for kindergarten.

Acord references the research of economist James Heckman, which focuses on the long-term overall economic gains of investing in early childhood development. He argues that before age five is the critical time when the brain builds the foundation of cognitive and character skills needed for success in school, career and life. And if children don’t get that high quality early start, it often results in a myriad of societal costs − poor health, higher dropout rates, poverty, crime and people who don’t live up to their full potential.

“He argues that the community gets a return on early childhood education,” Acord says. “If a child gets behind, it’s an enormous cost over that person’s lifetime for them and for the community, and when you multiply that effect by multiple people, it can be significant for the workforce.”

“We’re a three star program, the highest rating the state gives based on the education and training of your teachers, your facility and more,” Berryhill says. “We’ve maintained those standards since before the rating even existed. We’re providing the highest quality care and early childhood education, getting kids ready for kindergarten and setting them up for success. We know that the biggest part of brain development happens before age 3, and we have an opportunity to get these kids going in the right direction.”

“I have two adult children, and I’ve never been to a child care facility where every teacher is so engaging,” Pace says. “When I pick Lily up, the teachers are always interacting with the kids. Lily's counting better, and she’s more enthusiastic about it in just the six months she’s been here.”

Keeping Talented Educators in the Workforce

Chambliss Center for Children operates classrooms in Hamilton County schools for teachers’ children. It began as a retention effort with the Hamilton County Board of Education when they noticed a common sentiment in teacher exit interviews.

“The best teachers were leaving within a few years of being in the profession when they began having children, but said they’d be willing to stay with access to more convenient child care,” Acord says. “Our child care in schools is a win-win for everyone – teachers get affordable, convenient child care; the children have a quality early learning experience; and the Department of Education saves the costs associated with recruiting, hiring and training new teachers.”

Chambliss launched this program at Normal Park Museum Magnet School in the 90s. They’re now up to 12 schools which accommodate 12 kids in each class, and cost is based on each site’s salaries to maintain affordability.

In addition to child care for children six weeks to 12 years old, Chambliss Center for Children operates a group home for children removed from their families by the State due to abuse, abandonment or neglect, a residential program for recruiting and training foster families, and a transitional living program for youth who age out of the foster care system. Learn more about their programs at

For more on how high quality child care supports the workforce, and more interesting local business topics, check out our Chattanooga Works podcast.

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