Looking back on more than 50 years of operating Dell’s Children’s Center, Marlene Arata says she remembers all of the children.

She has a long-standing tradition of sending cards to all of her children for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter. A bulletin board on the wall of her office is covered with cards from families, some old, some new, some in their second generation of Dell’s kids. She can name them all. She remembers the age they started attending there. And she has a funny story to tell about each one.

“It’s the kids,” said Arata, 82, of what she has loved best about her career. Pointing to the bulletin board, “Look at it. These kids are amazing.”

Through lives, loves, heartache and changes, Arata said one thing has remained constant in her life and that is her love and commitment to the children in her care. From a young age, she said she always loved young children and the seed for Dell’s was planted in her mind when she was a young mother living in Seattle in 1958. 

After the birth of her first child, Arata said she found herself living far away from her friends and family in her hometown of Portland and decided she needed to get out of the home and meet some friends. She found a friend in a lady named Miss Davis. The one-time nurse had converted her basement into a childcare center.

“I thought, ‘how wonderful would it be to have a place where women could come and bring their child and not have to worry,” Arata recalled.

Arata said she did not recall ever voicing her dream of someday opening a similar space to anyone, but in 1969 her first husband announced that he had purchased a daycare center for her. The center in Centralia had shuttered suddenly. Parents had been told on Friday when they picked up their children that there would be no care Monday morning. She said the marriage was on rocky ground but she figured the business might be a good way to support her and her children, ages 10, 7 and 4, if she became a single mother. Dell’s Children’s Center opened in April 1969 and the marriage was over in June. Arata suddenly found herself having to run the center and her own household on her own.

“It was a cruddy house,” Arata recalled of the home in the beginning. “There was one heater in the middle of the room. In the winter, there was ice on the inside of the windows.”

But her childcare center quickly began to be successful.

“I started with six and by June, we had 24,” Arata said, adding with a laugh. “Then they all came down with chickenpox … then they all got the mumps.”

In the early days, Arata’s home was as much a part of the daycare as the center itself. She had some children who arrived before 5 a.m. because of their parents worked at the steam plant, or at the hospital. Some parents had keys to Arata’s home and would let themselves in. Being a mother of small children herself and knowing she needed a lot of energy to do her job, she would allow herself to sleep until she heard them come in, then she would get up and begin her day. Arata also served as the cook for the facility for 15 years. In the beginning, she had to do the cooking in her house and carry the food from the house to the childcare center out back.

“And I never dropped it, not even once,” she said proudly.

Running the facility on her own was not easy, she admitted. She attributes her success to her faith in God and to her mother, who showed her tough love when she wanted to quit. Eventually, her number of charges grew to the point where she expanded the childcare center. In later years, she bought a couple of neighboring houses to further expand the center.

Eventually, Arata said she also knew she needed more education to help her keep up with the daycare, as well as to provide the best and most enriching environment for her charges. She earned her associate’s degree from Centralia College in 1973 then her bachelor’s degree from The Evergreen State College in 1976. Later, she would go on to fulfil a lifelong dream by earning her master’s degree in counseling from St. Martin’s University in 2006.

It was during her master’s degree courses that Arata said she saw, once again, the hand of God in her life. She had met and married her second husband, Jack, in the early 1980s. A supportive spouse, Jack helped her balance life, work and school when she began her master’s work in 2000. Even through a retina tear, which meant she could not drive for about two years. Then, the week she began studying Alzheimer’s in school, Jack himself was diagnosed with the degenerative disease. He passed away in 2016 after 33 years of marriage. Though the memory still brings tears to her eyes, she said she felt her schooling allowed her to know and understand the disease and the childcare gave her an ability to work just steps from home.

“The daycare gave me the ability to take care of him because I was used to it with children,” Arata said. “I was just an extension of that. It was like it was planned for me.”

The regulations regarding daycare operation have changed drastically in the 50 years Arata has owned the facility. For example, she recalled that when her first batch of children had the chickenpox, she simply had the sick children stay inside her home and kept the well children in the childcare center. 

“The parents really appreciated it because they didn’t have to miss work,” Arata said.

Of course, now sick children are not allowed to attend. Arata said she has weathered many other changes, including having to add both a boys’ and girls’ bathroom (instead of having co-ed), adding safer outdoor play structures and foundations and adding gates and railings to outsides of buildings, just to name a few.

But one change to Dell’s that had nothing to do with childcare regulations. The facility flooded in 1990, causing $50,000 in damages. The 1996 flood cost Arata another $79,000, including costs to replace some fixtures she had just purchased during a remodel. So, in 1997 Arata made the decision to lift everything on the property and add a wall around the property at a cost of $80,000. The wall, which extends three feet below the surface, features a pump to keep water off the property and gates that can be closed to keep the property water tight in the event of another flood.

Now, Arata is preparing herself for the next phase of Dell’s Children’s Center, which is finding a new owner. She said she has decided to put the business up for sale and is hoping to find a buyer who may love the work as much as she has.

“I would hope that someone would buy it and continue the legacy,” she said.

Arata celebrated 50 years at Dell’s quietly. She said she considered holding a reunion event but did not know where she would hold it. When she was younger, Arata said she dreamed of retiring from childcare and going back to college to study history. She said she does not know what the next chapter of her life may bring, though she has considered writing a book about some of the research she has done into waiting to start children in kindergarten at an older age. But she said at the moment she does not know exactly what retirement will look like.

“I was thinking those little hats when you get your doctorate, they’re pretty cute,” she said with a smile.

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