By JOEL McNEECE
Mary Lee Ferguson said the opening of "Big Momma's House" daycare in Vardaman 11 years ago was a true "gift."
The 70-year-old house, located next door to Vardaman Schools on Pine Avenue, belonged to the original "Big Momma" – Ethel Ferguson. She was Mary Lee's husband Tom's grandmother. She lived to be 100-years-old.
Upon her death, Tom inherited the house and was trying to decide what to do with it.
"We could rent it to some little old lady," Tom suggested to his wife.
Mary Lee, who points out she had grey hair long before opening the daycare, pointed to herself as a potential renter.
"He wasn't sure at first that I was really serious, but he eventually agreed," Mary Lee said.
She had worked the past 17 years at United Chair in Bruce, but was ready to fulfill a goal of opening her own daycare.
They began transforming the old home into a daycare. Picking the name was among the easiest chores. They simply called it what it was – Big Momma's House.
"I put the ad in The Journal that week asking for kids," Mary Lee said. "I was nervous I wouldn't get a single call. Then that morning Lynn Lucius called about his little girl. It took off from there."
Mary Lee's step-daughter Danielle Stewart worked with her the first year. Stewart left for nursing school, and Kim Coggins replaced her. She's been there ever since.
Mary Lee said she's the head cook and more of a grandmother to all the children. Kim agreed to take on the role as the disciplinarian.
"I get them when I have to, but probably not like I should," Mary Lee said.
She described the greatest joy of the job as the "surprises from the kids."
"The things they say and do – it's always entertaining," Mary Lee said.
In the decade since opening, Big Momma's House has been home to 157 kids from 97 different families.
"I didn't realize it had been that many until I was asked to count them all up," Mary Lee said. "I'm so thankful for all these families that allowed us to be a part of their children's lives."
Over the years, the regulations from the state have become more demanding on the daycare business.
"I still make my time with the kids, but there's so much more I have to do now because of the state," Mary Lee said.
It's because of those growing burdens that Big Momma's is closing next week. The 70-year-old house wasn't built to house a daycare according to the modern specifications set by the state.
"I don't have the money to tear it down and start over," Mary Lee said. "So I decided I would just retire."
A retirement reception was held in her honor last Sunday at Vardaman Elementary.
"So many of our children through the years have been teachers’ kids," Mary Lee said. "I just can't say thanks enough for all the people that have been so supportive."
Mary Lee, 54, said she might try to sleep later than 5 a.m. in her new "retirement," but isn't certain she will be able to.
"That's been my schedule all my life," Mary Lee said. "I've worked ever since I was 15 years old. I don't know that I can get away from that."
Mary Lee, a native of Gauley and the oldest of seven children, said the 11 years of running the daycare was a dream come true.
"I just love kids," Mary Lee said as she acknowledged there has been more than a few tears in coming to this decision.
"When we first opened I couldn't have imagined we would have been here this long," she said. We've had some long, hard days and a lot of wonderful days."
"My goal when I started was to one day see one of my babies graduate," Mary Lee said. "Big Momma's won't be here when they graduate, but I'll be at that ceremony."