FACES IN THE CROWD -- Woman has 37 years in day care and still counting Joan Christensen has been a home-based child care provider since the late 1950s, when she lived in North Dakota. This year, she's been named the outstanding professional child care provider in Olmsted County.p For Joan Christensen, caring for other peoples' kids began in a rural northwestern North Dakota town in 1958.

``My husband was a teacher and the other teachers came to me and asked if I'd do it,'' she said.

At the time, in Plaza, N.D., it was uncommon for any of the 300 or so residents to provide day care for children other than their own, mostly because there was little demand.

``I don't think there were any people providing child care back then; teachers were the only women who worked (out of the home),'' Christensen said.

When she and her husband, Harold, moved to Rochester in 1969 so he could take a teaching job with the school district, Christensen soon started caring for Rochester kids who had parents working away from home.

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She changes their diapers, feeds them lunch and creates a sense of community among the children. Some accidentally call her mom every once in a while.

``When you have those kids around all the time, they become like extended family,'' Christensen said. ``I treat them like family.''

This month, Christensen is being honored as Olmsted County's Outstanding Professional Provider of the Year. The award is from Family Child Care Inc., a local organization that represents home-based child care providers.

Christensen and other providers will be honored Saturday at a banquet sponsored by the Minnesota Licensed Family Child Care Association.

On a recent day, as three children arrived at her home from school and pre-school classes, two others were waking up from afternoon naps. All were eager for Christensen's motherly attention and a chance to talk about their school days.

When asked how long she has been coming to Christensen's home, 10-year-old Whitney Kramer of Rochester brags: ``I've come here my whole life.'' She is the third child in her family that Christensen has cared for.

Tutti Sherlock, executive director of the Rochester-based Child Care Resource and Referral, said about 80 percent of all child care in Olmsted County is home-based.

On any given weekday, Sherlock said, about 5,000 children will spend at least some time in child care.

Sherlock said southeastern Minnesota and Olmsted County have some of the nation's highest rates for mothers with children under age 6 who work outside the home. ``Part of it is because we have jobs here,'' she said.

Christensen offers some tips for those who are considering becoming child care providers:

``If you can't stand not having your house a little messy, you can't do child care because children need to play,'' she said.

Other tips include letting children know what her rules are and making sure she is caring for children with cooperative parents. ``You've got to have trust in each other to make it work,'' she said.

Of course, not much can be done about the weather. ``They are the rowdiest when the weather is the yuckiest,'' Christensen said.

For her, one of the biggest benefits of her job was being able to be home to greet her own four, now grown-up, children when they arrived home from school. ``Kids need that,'' she said.

At age 58, and with a husband approaching retirement, Christensen said she isn't sure how many more years she'll continue to provide child care. ``I think they keep you young,'' she said.@et