With a sound university degree and a good job in the financial sector, Itoro Ugorji sure had life going on well for her. Everything seemed to be working accordingly and of course, her loved ones and associates expected her to extend her frontier in the corporate world. But she had a different and unusual plan. Fifteen years ago, she yielded to passion and chose to be taking care of children. Raheem Akingbolu, who spent one hour at The Baby Lounge, established by Ugorji on Victoria Island, Lagos, spoke to her on what informed her line of trade
t was a bright late afternoon, when children had just closed for academic activities. As this writer was ushered in by a receptionist at The Baby Lounge, he saw a different world, clearly different from what he had imagined. It wasn’t like the usual creche with stench or shabby environment. Everything was in order and of course, one needed nobody to announce that it was another world for children.
But just as they were settling down for business of the day, a three-year old girl bumped into Mrs. Ugorji’s office unannounced. She jumped into the waiting arms of the woman they all know as their second mother. No barriers. For few minutes, Ugorji cuddled her baby girl as she continued telling the stories of her activities in the school for the day. Cleverly, Ugorji called one of her assistants, a young lady in her early 20s to quickly attend to the school girl. She turned to her baby ‘my love, can you please go and settle down, have lunch and attend to your assignment.’ Reluctantly, the three-year old girl withdrew her hands and followed the lady who was waiting to take her to one of the rooms.
“Your daughter?’’ this reporter had asked curiously shortly after the baby girl left the room, “yes, one of my daughters, I have many of them and they are always at home with me.’’ With this, the reporter knew the young girl who just left the office reluctantly was not Ugorji’s biological kid but one of the children she was taking care of. Welcome to the world of Mrs. Itoro Ugorji, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Baby Lounge, Victoria Island, Lagos.
“I am an early years professional. That means I take care of children from two to five years. What we run is service called ‘baby lounge’, a child care service. As a matter of fact, we provide a range of unique, innovative early child care solutions. The service is designed to support working mothers of toddlers,” she said.
When asked of measures she has put in place to ensure security, she admitted that security and comfort were of utmost importance to parents when it comes to child care. “Parents are looking for childcare they can trust coupled with safety issues. And a place equipped with not just play resources, but with human beings that are compassionate and truly committed to taking care of the children as their own.”
Ugorji disclosed that she had been doing this off and on for 15 years, adding that within the period, she was in paid employment and was shuttling between home and work at the initial stage.
She explained: “I started out with a room in my house 15 years ago. Interestingly, the first child who came just turned 15. In the process of running this at the beginning, we discovered that it was capital intensive. We knew that to set a truly childcare facility was going to cost a lot of money. We didn’t have that kind of investment at the time. So the idea of an office creche came up. The office creche was simple. It was to go to the companies to say I have the expertise to provide child care service. Give me a space in your office and I would recommend furniture and fittings. The asset will be owned by you. I will just set up and run it.”
One wonders if it is not too expensive for Ugorji to have decided to locate her Baby Lounge in the heart of Victoria Island, with all its peculiar challenges and expensive lifestyle, no thanks to heavy concentration of businesses in the area. But to her, what her interviewer considered as challenge was actually a blessing in disguise.
She added: “One of the solutions is having it close to their offices so parents can drop their babies. That’s why we have spaces like the nursing room where mothers can breastfeed their babies and go back to work. So, the creche in the business place is one of the solutions. Another solution is office creche. For the office creche, we do two things: set up and management. We can set up for you and not manage. We set up for the likes of GTBank, Access Bank, Total. For Total, we set up and managed for three years. We recently set up for Chevron Employee Management Cooperative Society. We it set up and we are running it. We also have the in-home child care. We can send care to your home in the event that you don’t want to bring the baby to the creche. It can be hourly or daily arrangement. We also offer weekend care.’’
Speaking on what informed this; this pleasant Akwa Ibom born child care expert didn’t mince words as she announced that it was borne out of a personal experience.
Ugorji recalled: “When I started out, we didn’t have our own baby; we had a period of seven years waiting. The idea of the office creche was because we didn’t have fund to start. Then after some years, we discovered we needed to have our facility, The Baby Lounge, which is barely three years. I was in paid employment working in high pressure environment. When our baby came, I wasn’t ready to leave paid employment yet, but the baby was very precious, we had to think of child care. So, I started shopping around and realised that it was not easy. We were looking for a clean place, with children being well cared for by professionals. This is core child care.
“I worked with GTBank and Access Bank in various capacities. But my area of core competence was customer experience and relationship management. I realised there was a gap. I took the baby to the office one day and put him in a corner. And then it occurred to me we could actually create a corner for the babies. So I spoke to my supervisor at the time. I did the survey and the responses were overwhelming. Even fathers wanted creches in their offices. And the kinds of parents I was looking to serve, you needed to be knowledgeable. It wasn’t just about passion; it had to be combined with some level of competence. So I had to go and study this. It was early childhood education with focus on leadership.”
She explained her mode of operation: “We have the infant room and toddler community. The infants are from six weeks to twelve months. From there, they move to toddler community which is largely for care and monitoring their development. When they turn new month, we give parents what we call milestone checklist. It tells you what your child should be doing at certain ages. We also do things like sending reminders to parents on upcoming immunisations. We also encourage and support parents to do exclusive breastfeeding because the benefit is just enormous.
“We also have facilities like the refrigerating unit where the parents bring their expression milk bottles. We label these bottles with the children’s names, date and time of expression. We have sterilising units, warmers for the infants. For the toddlers, the children are from 13-36 months. For this set, we have structured routine. That is school readiness skills and we work with the curriculum. These children are taught social skills, self-help skills, early literacy, arts and craft. By the time they leave us, the foundation is set. They know their numbers, colours, their vocabulary has increased and they can trace numbers and hold their pencils right.’’
At this stage, Ugorji rearranged herself, tapped the table as if she had just remember something urgent. It was about her ‘daughter’ who came in when the interview was about taking off: “Yes, let me use my daughter who came in when we were about kicking off to explain our after school programme. Children come in from other schools. With those set of kids, we do homework assistance and tutoring. We actually have a focus on getting children to read early. We have the library; they pick up story books and read. Another service we provide is event pop up creche. It’s a mobile care and play setting for event; weddings conferences etc, where you have women in attendance. Most women don’t attend most events because they have issues with childcare. We do risk assessment of the venue and set it up. So, parents can have their kids and attend their event. We work with organisers and event planners. The organisers will inform us ahead of time. So we will set up a corner where mothers can breastfeed and activity corners with toys and story books.”
As beautiful as the process appears to look, Ugorji was frank enough to reel out the challenges that come with her nature of job. According to her, trust remains one of the major challenges that people in her shoes will have to pay good attention to.
“Our major challenge would be the trust issue. You have to earn that trust. It’s ironic that it’s trust issues because we take people from rural areas that are complete strangers with no blood relations with us and leave our children with them, hoping they are safe. We have loads of issue of abuse; the ones parents are aware of and those they are yet to be aware of. This service is born out of need to not just support mothers but help nurture children to be wholesome kids. We have child care training. If you have helps that are literate, we can train them to make them professional in area of child care so they can take care of your children. We also have people who want to set up creches. We are saying that just the same way you can’t go and perform surgery as a doctor because you didn’t go to medical school, you can’t also start a good crèche without proper training. So if you think you can work off the street and take care of children without being trained? It’s almost an injustice to the kids”, she posited.
On the measures her organisation put in place to screen those who work with her, Ugorji disclosed that they do diligent background screenings and medical screening.
She explained: “You will agree that it’s an ultra-sensitive service. So it’s important that those in this service are screened. We believe giving birth to children shouldn’t deprive the mother of attaining her potential. This is one of the reasons why this service is available.’’
To justify her position about training, Ugorji opened up on her credentials, which have almost taken her away finally from her corporate and literary background: “My hands-on experience as an Early Years Practitioner include international exposures in Nursery Hill Elementary School and Smart Kidz Academy, both in Columbia, South Carolina. I have undertaken several skills and competency-based trainings in the field of Childcare. I hold a Diploma in Children Studies and an M.Sc programme in Early Childhood Education with a specialisation in Administration, Management & Leadership. I am a member of the U.S. National Association for Educating the Young Child (N.A.E.Y.C) and the World Forum Foundation, both international networks of Early Year professionals that promote an on-going global exchange of ideas on the delivery of quality services for young children in diverse settings. My core competencies are employer-sponsored crèches.”