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Putting the 'care' in day care

I started out trying to track down the Sikes because I wanted to thank someone who worked for them almost three decades ago for saving me from drowning. After I found the Sikes I realized I owed them a thank you as well, although for not quite the same thing.

My mother, like so many, had to go back to work in the late '70s after having two kids. With no one to baby-sit she looked for a day care center and we ended up at one called Kiddie Korral off Wesley Chapel Road in DeKalb County.

The Kiddie Korral was a fun place, where a kid could do kid things and where everyone was treated the same way: as equals in a big family - specifically, the Sikes family, who owned the place.

Dale Sikes was, at the time, the biggest man I knew other than my dad.

He walked with his head held high, chin up, shoulders square, chest out and with a purpose. I was 6, I think, or maybe 7, when I first saw him, and to me he just looked big and strong. He was always doing something around the grounds, indefinitely busy.

His wife, Dianne, a kind soul with a kind word for everyone, ran the front office. His daughter, Micki, was an outgoing teenager then and helped her mom and dad.

If you got bored at Kiddie Korral, you weren't trying very hard to have fun.

They had this big playset called the Lunar Lander, fashioned after the space capsule, complete with a slide. The swings were the biggest and best I'd ever seen. There were old 55-gallon drums to crawl through, big plastic turtle shells to hide in and a field to play Nerf football or soccer. And of course, plenty of dirt.

Plus, the Sikes were always taking us places. We went to Stone Mountain, the farmer's market, the skating rink and to what was probably everyone's favorite destination, the dump.

Mr. Sikes would load up some trash, load up some of us kids and off we'd go. The dump had a huge pit with a compactor, and it smelled awful, but watching the machines at the dump was as fun to us kids as watching dinosaurs eat.

The Sikes also took us swimming at their house.

The way I remember it, swimming at the Sikes' house had a couple of rules: If you couldn't swim you stayed in the shallow end. And to deter us from going to the bathroom in his pool, Mr. Sikes told us the water would turn black around you if you did. No one ever did.

I did, however, violate the other rule once. I was dared - and what kid turns down a dare? - to jump off the little diving board in the deep end.

I did, but I couldn't swim. The last thing I remember seeing before I went down for what I was sure was going to be the last time was a woman named Debra (the Sikes tell me it was likely a girl named Debra Hill) flying though the air, jumping in to save me. I remember she was wearing blue jeans, a big '70s flyaway collar, big '70s sunglasses and she had one of those feathery '70s hairdos. She looked like one of Charlie's Angels. She pulled me from the pool, and therefore was, and always will be, an angel to me. Wherever you are, thank you.

I don't know how much mortal danger I was ever really in, but there's no feeling like having someone save you when you need saving, and that's true in more than just swimming. That's what you got from the Sikes.

As I got older, Mr. Sikes would give me odd jobs around the place. Sometimes I got to go in the little cafeteria building and get a Coke afterward and sometimes he would give me a dollar or two, and we'd go to the Dairy Queen in front of Kiddie Korral for an ice cream. Once, he let me go by myself. I'm sure he or someone watched me the whole time, but I still felt independent and important, like a working man off to spend his earnings.

The Sikes understood there was more to the day care business than just letting a kid take up space in their building. We were treated importantly, and we left knowing something about life. You learned something and you had fun doing it.

Nowadays the name and location are both different (it's now called Sikes Day School, and it's in Lilburn, where it's been for 25 years) but the Sikes' attitude is the same.

"You try to treat them like you would your own kids or grandkids. That was always our motto. Whatever one got, they all got," Dianne said.

That method keeps people coming back. One employee, Quilla Dorsey, has been there 36 years. Many others have similar lengths of service. And the people who were kids there 20 years ago take their kids to the Sikes School now.

Times have changed, of course. The Coke machine is gone. Too unhealthy, some regulator says. Kids can't do odd jobs, you can't hug them anymore, can't take them on trips without jumping through a dozen hoops. Paranoid parents, criminals and bureaucrats have sapped a lot of fun out of the business.

But after 43 years, the Sikes have learned to adjust, and no matter how much times change, some things stay the same. Dianne still opens the place every morning at 6:30 and stays until closing time at 7 p.m. Micki drives the bus now, and working there is the only job she's ever had. She still tells stories with the same gusto, the excitement still showing in her eyes.

And Dale is still trying to teach kids something.

"It's still a joy, don't get me wrong. But I can't do the (same) things," Dale told me. He started out saying, "Back then, nobody knew anything about day care, so ..." and then Dianne finished his sentence, "... we just treated them like our kids."

It seems they knew more than they thought they did.

And one other thing. I'm 35 now and over 6 feet tall. When I got out of my chair to shake Mr. Sikes' hand I noticed he wasn't as tall as I remembered him being when I was a kid.

But he's still one of the biggest men I know.

E-mail Nate McCullough

at nate.mccullough

@gwinnettdailypost.com

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