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When Jessica Smeding arrived at Mila’s Preschool and Child Care Center in St. Helena to pick up her son, she was told he was out on a walk and would be back soon.

At most daycare centers, that would mean all the kids were walking together. But at Mila’s, it meant staff members had noticed that little Barrett had needed to stretch his 14-month-old legs, so they’d taken him on his own walk while the rest of the kids stayed behind to play.

That’s the sort of individualized attention that has parents raving about Mila Zavaleta’s daycare and preschool. After almost 20 years of operating in private homes, the center is moving to the former Young School site on Brown Street and expanding from 12 kids to 32.

The new facility, set to launch within a month, will have programs for infants (0-18 months), toddlers (18 months-3 years), preschool I (3-4 years) and preschool II (4-5 years).

Smeding and other parents praise the center’s loving and welcoming environment, bilingual approach, and record of producing young students who are socially adept and eager to learn.

Kim Phinney said the center was “a Godsend” when she was working full time and needed someone to take care of her kids.

“They were socialized while being taught the early stages of learning in a loving and caring (fun) environment,” Phinney wrote, praising the center’s low child/caregiver ratio.

When Phinney’s kids left their “second home” to go to school, “they were social, independent, respectful, worked well with others and were ready to learn,” she said.

Over the years the center has operated in houses on Valley View Street and in Angwin and Deer Park before moving to its current location on Chiles Avenue.

Zavaleta started the business in 2001 after one of her kids’ teachers, St. Helena Primary School kindergarten teacher Nicole Landis, asked Zavaleta to babysit her own child.

Zavaleta was raised in Peru, where “the child is the center of the family,” she said. Her daycare is guided by that philosophy, and she strives to nurture “inquisitive learners” who can look after themselves and look out for others.

“My goal along has been to treat the kids like they’re mine,” she said. “I want them to be caring, motivated, and encouraged to be learners for life.”

The entire staff is bilingual, and each child picks up English and Spanish skills. Zavaleta likes to expand each child’s vocabulary, and parents have told her amusing stories about their child asking if they can “drink more liquid” or saying something got “stuck in my esophagus.”

Mila’s Daycare was the first place Stephanie Honig ever left her infant daughters.

“Mila gave them so much warmth … and she really gave me that peace of mind as a first-time parent that they were going to be OK,” Honig said. “I completely trusted her.”

Zavaleta first obtained a state license for an in-home daycare with up to six kids. With the help of supportive parents like Jeff and Laurie Conwell, she got the license expanded to allow the current enrollment of 12 kids, now ranging in age from 7 months to 4 years. She’s cared for babies as young as two or three weeks old.

“There are other daycares, but they mostly want kids from 2 (years old) on up,” she said. “But we enjoy the babies, and even the older kids like to interact with the smaller babies and learn to be responsible. We’re like a little family here.”

Twelve is the maximum number of kids for an in-home daycare center, and there are eight kids on a waiting list. Zavaleta has been thinking about expanding the center, and she found the perfect space at the St. Helena Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Church on Brown Street. The space has been vacant since the Montessori-inspired Young School closed in 2016.

Zavaleta is now obtaining a state license for a non-residential child care center, which involves fire inspections, a mountain of paperwork, and binders full of safety protocols and emergency plans. It’s a lot of trouble, but it will be worth it, she said.

“I feel like I’m making a difference in each child’s life,” she said. “That’s my main goal.”

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St. Helena Reporter

Jesse has been a reporter for the St. Helena Star since 2006.