Fortin Villa was a home away from home.
That’s the general feeling you get when talking with parents on how children felt about the decades-old daycare with thousands of personal connections to families and residents in Kankakee County. Even so, the daycare chose to destroy those connections two weeks ago today, without formal notice, opting for a text alerting parents of the facility’s closure.
“I know most of you have heard the news, Fortin Villa is closing permanently,” said Fortin Villa’s Director in a text sent Monday, April 13th. A brief conference call with staff announcing they had lost their jobs, some after 20+ years at the Kankakee location partnered with that informal news.
Fortin Villa relocated from Bourbonnais to Kankakee nearly a decade ago.
“It was unprofessional and unacceptable for a Catholic-based Healthcare system to behave in this manner,” said Angela Bury, whose daughter Scarlett began attending Fortin Villa in 2016.
As of March 16th, Fortin Villa alerted parents they would have to close due to COVID-19. There was no mention of permanent closure, according to the parents.
Then the TEXT arrived.
“No explanation. No reason. Just adios, have a nice life. We owe you nothing,” Bury says. “Weeks have gone by and we are all anxious to get back to normal. My daughter asks me daily if I think her friends and teachers miss her as much as she misses them?”
Bury wrote Ascension Living a letter directed to corporate higher-ups she worries not only about the fears COVID-19 presents, but the mental health scars this could leave on children.
“I’m sure I am not the only parent who worried not only about their child’s physical health and fear of catching the virus, but about the emotional, social, and mental health as well.” Bury said to Ascension.
“How would my daughter adjust to her new temporary “normal?” Would she forget her letters? How much screen time is too much? Questions I think every parent has had during this pandemic and wondering if we are doing everything right.” Bury asks.
Both Bury and her husband are essential workers. But Bury is far from the only parent blindsided by the announcement.
“We left the Villa (in March) thinking we would see our second family again after the threat of COVID had subsided,” said Carrie Greenley, a mother of two who attended Fortin Villa. “We were blindsided when we heard of the permanent closing on April 13th. I cannot fathom any excuse for why the facility closed so abruptly. I am sure it was for “financial reasons”, but if the facility has been able to thrive for over 30 years, is this really the issue?”
Parents were invited by Fortin Villa’s Director to pick up children’s items shortly after the announcement. Since then, parents have tried to rally to have the facility reopened.
“We felt like family, all of the teachers were very great with the children and you can tell they genuinely cared about their well being,” said Elyssa Macias, a mother of two former Fortin Villa children. At the time of closing, Fortin Villa cared for 120 children ages six weeks to twelve years old.
Macias’ children joined the Fortin Villa six months ago.
“I have made many failed attempts to reach someone at the corporate office, I get the run around every time I call, but that is not going to stop me,” Macias told us last week in an email. “I, like all of us affected by this abrupt closure, am searching for answers.”
Pushing forward, Macias brought together members of her Fortin Villa family through a Facebook Group working towards moving Ascension Living to re-evaluate their decision to close the Kankakee location. “I couldn’t be more proud of the way we have all come together, sharing memories, and ideas on what we can potentially do to change the decision made by Ascension.”
“If there was anything we could have done to save our beloved daycare, believe me, parents and staff would have made it happen,” said Greenley. “One cannot put a price on the comfort, love, and education our children received. It has been an enormous source of stress thinking of finding another place for our children to grow.”
Other parents like Tracy Monferdini, whose family is second-generation Villa cared-for, says Ascension’s actions are nothing short of traumatizing.
“I think what this corporation did to this community, these teachers AND these children can only be explained as traumatizing in today’s climate. There are enough things in life you can’t control right now. This didn’t need to be added to the pile. I am thoroughly disgusted by this and hope the powers that be reconsider this awful decision.” Monferdini said.
The move comes especially hard for mothers of newborns, like Kayleign Norton, now facing additional challenges moving forward. Not only must she discover a new daycare provider for her three kids, but also her newborn once she’s able to return to work. “The way Ascension handled the closing was very unprofessional and harsh. We as a community deserve answers!”
Parents we interviewed told us while most daycares do accept newborns, finding one you trust can be more than a ‘hard’ thing to do.
“We had no warning at all, not even the slightest clue that they were closing. Once I received the text that they were closing I was in tears. How could such a thriving daycare center with a waiting list, just up and close?” asked Norton. “My kids are devastated they can’t go back to their lifelong friends and teachers they love so much. My 3-year-old doesn’t understand why she’ll never get to go back to school where she felt so comfortable at.”
Parents believe selling the daycare, with its history in the area, may have been the better solution than pulling up stakes in Kankakee.
“I did not receive any compassion,” said Lindsey Stenlund referencing Ascension Living’s mission statement. “They took my daughter’s safety net, they took her teacher’s safety net. Why not put the daycare up for sale?” Several parents have expressed interest in taking over the facility.
On Friday, April 17th, a petition was created asking Ascension Living to re-open the facility or to sell or donate the business, or give parents a minimum of six months closure notice to allow parents to find another daycare in the area. There are currently 740 signatures via the Change.org link.
Due to the COVID-19 outbreaks across the United States, additional time was given by Country Herald for Ascension Living to reply and offer a statement on the closing of Fortin Villa.
Ascension Living has multiple facilities with outbreaks of COVID-19 across Chicagoland, including Presence Villa Franciscan in Joliet, which has reported 41 cases of the pandemic, with 8 dead at that facility according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
No statement was given during that time.