A one-time Warwick Neck eyesore has become a picture of beauty and youth.
Yesterday, The Learning Garden, located at 295 Warwick Neck Avenue in the building that once housed a general store, pharmacy and deli, welcomed its first 16 children ages 6 weeks to 5 years old.
“It’s finally here!” exclaimed Raquel Rei, who, along with her sister Carla Rei Kaplan, purchased the 4,217-square-foot building last August and have worked ever since to open a home-like day care and preschool. “We’ve taken care of every little detail necessary; we’re so excited, this is a dream come true.”
The sisters purchased the property from WNGS Inc. for $139,000 and, with the help of their father Manny Rei, have given it new life.
As recently as 10 days ago, the sisters cleared their final hurdle receiving a green light from the Department of Children, Youth and Families to open their doors for business.
Carla Rei Kaplan’s husband Matt painted almost every inch of trim on the building’s exterior. He also teamed with Gerry Fortuna – Raquel Rei’s husband-to-be – and joined in the power-washing detail to give the building an immediate new identity.
Through it all, though, Manny Rei has been the driving force – sometimes a one-man construction crew – to make sure his daughters realize their dream of opening what they want people to say is the best day care facility around.
Manny Rei has done everything from clear brush to get rid of diseased trees to double the size of all existing windows and, as Carla Rei Kaplan said, “added two more windows to ensure every space has beautiful natural sunlight coming through.”
The Learning Garden owners had to replace a sub-floor that was damaged by water and rot and installed new and sustainable bamboo flooring throughout every inch of classroom space. They also replaced the roof with energy-efficient shingles, which did not even contain plywood in some areas.
Yet another part of the construction included replacing all furnace and air conditioning units with new high efficiency units and adding a ventilation system to maintain a high standard of air quality for the children. The center will operate year-round.
“It is a costly venture,” Raquel Rei said. “But all of the work needed to be done to bring the building up to code so we could open as a full-fledged daycare.”
And, as Warwick Neck resident and Ward 5 City Councilman Ed Ladouceur said, “Most of the work has been done by family members. This is a very talented family and we’re certainly excited about what they’ve done to beautify their property. It’s a welcome addition to Warwick Neck and our city.”
While Ladouceur has helped the Reis in the areas of his building expertise, there’s another group of people who’ve been big boosters ever since the project began nearly 10 months ago.
“Our neighbors have been very, very, very supportive,” said Raquel Rei. “We’ve also had lots of curious people stop by; they’re all happy with what we’ve done.”
Their Warwick Neck neighbors are also excited that the sisters will operate The Learning Garden just like it was their home. Raquel Rei, in fact, has done that for the past four years while operating her home daycare – Rei of Sunshine – at full capacity.
“Too many commercial centers wind up feeling institutional, cold, outdated and cookie cutter,” Carla Rei Kaplan said. “We’re a family-owned business. We think our wooden floors, warm and homey upholstery and furniture is the way to go. Also, our teachers will be wearing regular clothes like mom would wear.”
The Learning Garden, she emphasized, also has a natural playground “made to look just like our backyard.”
And that playground, which was once filled with rocks, dead tree branches, etc., is required to house 44 children at one time. Much to the amazement of some inspectors, The Learning Garden playground has room for 105 kids.
“One of our goals is to give each child a love of learning through new adventures and experiences every day,” added Raquel Rei, who serves as on-site owner and director. “We believe that a child’s only job is to play, and through play a child will learn, build self-confidence, obtain new skills and reach new milestones.”
Rei added that “our job is to create classroom centers – both indoors and outdoors – that are set up to include many types of play and learning. Toys and books will be rotated often to maintain interest and promote curiosity.”
Raquel Rei is no stranger to childcare. She has worked in the industry for more than 15 years and has a B.S. in Human Development and Family Studies from the University of Rhode Island.
Through her many experiences, she noticed that not all care providers are created equal. She also saw that when caregivers were not fully committed to the well-being and positive development of the child, the youngster suffers.
“And because of the disappointments she has seen in her career, my sister was motivated to start a home daycare that offered the kind of quality and dedicated care that every child deserves,” Carla Rei Kaplan said.
The sisters have formed a unique partnership and with lots of help from their parents and their spouses, The Learning Garden is ready to go.
“Together,” Raquel said with a dash of exuberance in her soft voice, “we are committed to providing quality care to every child enrolled here at The Learning Garden.”