“Never give up on yourself.”
St. Louis native Lakaisha McCaleb gives this piece of advice to young ladies in her two mentoring programs, during motivational speeches and to anyone who needs help, and for good reason. It is an adage that has helped her persevere through many obstacles and achieve many goals in her own life.
Lakaisha didn’t give up on herself when she was bullied in school because she was biracial. She didn’t give up on herself when she was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child. She didn’t give up when she battled cancer three times throughout her young life, was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder that was supposed to prevent her from having children, and became homeless after taking a medical leave from work due to dealing with her illnesses.
With her faith in God, her mother Arlesa Mason’s unconditional love and support, and her own hard work and ambition, Lakaisha threw herself into community involvement, gained aid from local organizations and fulfilled her dream of opening a needed service in Jefferson City, a 24-hour day care.
Alongside her business partner Arlesa, Lakaisha continues to grow Joy & Gladness Children’s Academy, which now serves 70-plus children and is in the process of expanding its facility to offer more extensive evening, overnight and weekend care along with space for helpful programs and services to families and local organizations. Her strong leadership, philanthropy and caring heart has helped spread “joy and gladness” throughout the community. For this reason and many others, she has earned the Missouri Business Women Center’s first ever Women Who Own It Entrepreneur of the Year award for Cole County.
“No matter what life throws at you, I tell them catch it with the grace of the Lord and keep on going. So many obstacles came and got in my way, but I was determined with God on my side,” she said. “I was going to do what I set out to do. … I never gave up.”
Caring for children was ingrained in Lakaisha. Her personality is suited for the job, but her passion for nurturing others started when she was a child herself.
Helping to take care of her eight siblings as the oldest while growing up in St. Louis, Lakaisha also enjoyed assisting students at a day care center where her mother worked for a long time as a preschool teacher.
“I would go volunteer at her job for different holidays,” she said, recalling the many fond moments she had with those children. “I enjoyed helping out at the parties, the Christmas plays and other stuff.”
Lakaisha also joined a babysitting club, taking classes about babysitting, how to set herself apart to receive payment for her services and becoming certified to watch babies. As a result, Lakaisha babysat her older cousin’s children and developed her first entrepreneurial skills during her elementary school years and into high school.
“I always wanted to be a teacher and enjoy teaching others, especially younger kids,” she said.
Even though she faced obstacles such as bullying and dyslexia, a learning disorder where areas of the brain have difficulty processing language, Lakaisha followed her desire to teach others.
Then her senior year of high school, she was diagnosed with first stage cervical cancer. While receiving treatment and undergoing procedures, she attended an alternative school so she could graduate. At the same time, she saw many of her friends having children and struggling to go to school and work. She believed that young mothers should be able to have affordable and quality day care services, so that they could continue their education and provide for their families.
Learning about early childhood education after graduating early in 2002, Lakaisha partnered with Arlesa, secured a business license and opened an in-home day care in her mother’s home that same year to help friends, family and those in need in her community.
Lakaisha also pursued a modeling career, becoming the original Apple Bottom Jeans model among other major clothing model campaigns, all the while helping run the inhome day care in St. Louis until her mother moved to Jefferson City in 2008.
Through her modeling experience, she realized the true definition of “beauty,” discovering it “starts in the heart,” Lakaisha said.
In 2007, she developed the “I Am Beautiful” and “High Heels to High Places” mentoring programs for girls 11 and younger and 12 and older, respectively. Books, which also share Lakaisha’s trials and tribulations in her own life, accompany the seven-week programs, teaching the girls a variety of topics including etiquette, career choices, self-esteem, dreaming big and “how to be their own star,” she said.
“I was bullied a lot when I was little because I am mixed. At that time, a lot of kids were not used to a biracial person. … Having a learning disorder and growing up with all that, having sickness and illness to deal with on top of everything else, feeling like an outcast, you still have to love yourself no matter what,” Lakaisha said. “That is how I got into motivational speaking and being a mentor, because of me being a former model. I wanted to give back to the community. A lot of young girls think that what … everybody says about you is how they see themselves, but that is not the case. We are a big community.”
In St. Louis, Lakaisha would signify the end of each mentoring program with a “Let Your Light Shine” red carpet style event where the program graduates would showcase their talents, share what they learned and what they took from the program and interact with their families and members of the community.
“The girls would also put on a great show, showcasing jump-roping, teaching double-dutch, doing praise dance, poetry or music – whatever they loved to do,” she said, noting the success of both programs earned her a letter of recognition from Gov. Matt Blunt. “I did that for years in St. Louis.”
She took a break from modeling and childcare in 2008, pursuing a massage therapy degree and working at a bank. In 2010, her cervical cancer returned.
She had to take a medical leave from her job, leaving her homeless and in need of a fresh start while she got better. Lakaisha transitioned to Jefferson City, where her mother lived and continued to run her own in-home day care business. Lakaisha lived with her mother, getting better, going into remission once more from her bout with cancer and securing her own residence.
“After I felt better and got better, I decided to do childcare in my own home because there were so many students that my sister knew that had children and needed help and needed someone to provide for them,” she said, noting many of those parents were classmates at Lincoln University. “My mom had her 10 and I had my 10 (at their respective in-home day cares). A young lady came and said she was going to have to stop going to school or work.
There was no 24-hour day care at that time. We wondered if we could partner up and provide both morning and evening childcare. We thought, ‘Let’s go ahead and try this.'”
Finding out they were unable to provide both morning and evening services in their in-home day care environment as partners, they began looking for a commercial building. In 2013, they found the building, started the process of securing a day care license and proper paperwork in 2014, and officially opened Joy & Gladness Children’s Academy, LLC in March 2015 near downtown Jefferson City.
“I have always had my chauffeur’s license and able to do pick-up and drop-off for the in-home day care. But with the commercial building, we are able to expand beyond just providing care for family and friends,” Lakaisha said of the 24-hour day care. “Our vision with this is to provide care for more families, and as a result provide jobs for people in the community.”
The need for 24-hour day care is there, as Lakaisha and Arlesa currently have 78 children ages six weeks to 12 years old enrolled at Joy & Gladness Children’s Academy.
Providing day, evening, overnight and weekend care, Joy & Gladness has the children in each classroom segmented by age group learning throughout their time at the preschool and day care facility. The morning shift, with children typically staying from as early as 6-6:30 a.m. to 5-5:30 p.m. have multiple lessons they learn, free play, meals and snacks, and more.
“Each teacher has a weekly lesson plan they go by, following a big overall curriculum that goes with what number, letter and color we are on for that week,” Lakaisha explained. “In the evening time, it is more mentoring, homework, arts and crafts, free play and preparing for bed and quiet time at 8 p.m. The morning is definitely different, with more teaching and learning.”
However, regardless of when the children are there, they spend some time reading.
“We do encourage all the children to read anywhere at least 30-40 minutes while they are here. (For example with the evening care), if they aren’t doing homework, then we’ll make sure they have a book to read,” she said.
Lakaisha or other qualified staff will also pick up and drop off children, working with local school districts to bring children to Joy & Gladness for scheduled care. Their next plan of action is to acquire the upstairs of their current building and prepare it for more classrooms, particularly to expand their evening care program. The demand is there, and they will be able to hire more teachers to continue providing a safe, caring and educational environment for their 24-hour day care. They also would like to utilize the building space for gymnastics teams, Girl Scouts, parents who breastfeed, her mentoring programs and other organizations that would like to partner with Joy & Gladness.
Lakaisha holds a variety of certificates in childcare and management, and also ensures her staff receive the training they need by assisting with financing this education.
“We have to get workers and train them to be great teachers,” she said, noting she currently has 10 employees. “Everybody sees me and my hard work, but my team is so awesome.”
The children respond to every one of the staff, looking at them like a second family and often calling Lakaisha “TT,” and Arlesa “Granny.”
The matriarchs of Joy & Gladness also provide programs where parents can earn scholarships to have multiple children in their care, referral programs and discounts for employees also needing the academy’s preschool and/or day care services.
“During the holidays, my mom and I still end up with a house full of kids whose parents don’t have family here and still have to go to work,” she said. “If we are in town, we’ll open up our home to certain families so their parents can go to work. … We are all like family.”
As family helps family, Lakaisha and Arlesa often recommend services they have learned about, or in some cases used, that could give those hardworking parents a leg up in providing for their children. When Lakaisha first got out on her own after moving to Jefferson City, she used government-funded housing. She enrolled in a Step Up Leadership program through Central Missouri Community Action. This is where she was referred to Dreams to Reality, a not-for-profit organization helping women in need find appropriate job attire and resources to attain new careers.
“They helped with a wardrobe and how to get the job I wanted. I got appointed to the Dreams to Reality board (of directors) and enjoyed helping that organization,” she said, noting she still volunteers there and refers women to the program. “Sometimes life hits you and you think everybody has something to say and they are going to treat you differently. But they didn’t. I tell everybody that I know about Dreams to Reality.”
Lakaisha also shares any information she can about local organizations like Central Missouri Community Action, the United Way, in which she was a 2015 spokesperson, the Missouri Women’s Business Center that she utilized for training to help with her business plan, and other organizations that have helped her and can help families in need.
TT and Granny’s “second family” share in their love of the service they and staff at Joy & Gladness provide them and their children.
“The rewarding part is when the parents come in and say, ‘If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have my job. … A lot of parents now can go to work and to school, finishing their degrees,” she said.
“They also say the staff are so welcoming and caring. Many of our parents volunteer and help out when they can.”
That welcoming, caring and strong nature is what prompted a family member to nominate Lakaisha for the Missouri Women’s Business Center’s inaugural Women Who Own It Entrepreneur of the Year award for Cole County. Lakaisha was honored and humbled to be named its recipient, and it also drives her to continue to do more and be more both professionally and personally.
“I told them, I don’t puff up myself but I got emotional at the time they asked me (about the award). … I think I should be the winner because with all the obstacles I have faced in my life, I have always succeeded and never given up on my dreams. I have had to sacrifice my family,” she said.
Able to have her two “miracle rainbow babies” – 13-year-old Serenity and 5-year-old Grace – despite opposition from a rare blood disorder, Lakaisha felt while she provided care for other children at Joy & Gladness in her life, she was not always giving that same care to her daughters. However, her girls see her mother as one of their biggest role models, often writing her notes such as “very kind-hearted,” “you can do it!” “great business woman, mom,” and “we love you!”, which she proudly displays at her work desk.
“It is something I always wanted to do, be an entrepreneur, a teacher and do something with children. When I started modeling, it opened the doors for me to be a leader in the community and a role model. I wanted to be that as a big sister to my (siblings) and now to my two daughters,” she said. “I want them to be like, ‘My mom is my role model.'”
As Serenity often assists her mom in the Joy & Gladness baby room and Grace saying she will one day take over the business, Lakaisha sees how much she looks up to her, as she does her own mother.
“If it wasn’t for her believing in me and stepping out on fate, opening up her home to start our first in-home day care, we wouldn’t have this now,” she said of Arlesa. “Every time I wanted to do something, she was always in support of it. … If it wasn’t her believing in me, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. We remain partners and have followed the same dreams ever since.”
Now engaged to be married in June to her fiancé Andrew Sutherland, Lakaisha is hold her family close, continue her philanthropic and community-involved efforts, provide more mentoring programs and expand Joy & Gladness, with hopes to franchise the 24-hour day care concept to other cities. She has never given up, and she encourages others to do the same.
“There is a story in the Bible that talks about bringing joy and gladness to the earth. … That is what I wanted to do with my business – bring joy and gladness to the community,” she said, noting its name derived. “Like I tell my girls I mentor, my parents and my staff, reach for the stars and follow your dreams. … My dream has allowed a lot of women to go back to school and better provide for my family. It allows others to expand their dreams and give them that same joy and gladness in their lives.”
For more information about Lakaisha McCaleb and Joy & Gladness Children’s Academy, LLC, call 573-353-8323, search “Joy & Gladness Children’s Academy LLC” on Facebook or visit http://lakaishamccaleb.com. For more information about the Missouri Women’s Business Center, visit mowbc.org. For more information about the organization’s “Women Who Own It” awards, visit womenwhoownitawards.com.
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