ORONOCO — Terri Zemke’s talent is kids.
“It’s my gift,” Zemke, 50, explained. “I love kids. I’m good with them, and I love to see that light go on when they learn anything.”
That passion for kids and helping them learn is what earned Zemke the Olmsted County Child Care Provider of the Year award earlier this May.
The award is presented by Rochester-based Family Child Care, Inc., an organization providing training and resources to childcare providers in Olmsted County. It recognizes providers who offer outstanding care and professional services the families in their program.
In order to be eligible, Zemke was nominated by a parent, Tabitha Luedke, who currently has two kids under Zemke’s care. In her nomination letter, Luedke listed Zemke’s engagement with kids, routine and structure, emphasis on life skills and communication with parents as reasons she felt Zemke deserved to be recognized with the award.
“Terri is an exceptional child care provider,” Luedke wrote in her letter. “She is skilled, professional, kind and compassionate. Undoubtedly Terri positively impacts the lives of the children she cares for.”
Zemke, who has operated her in-home child care service Country Kids since 2010, said she was excited and gratified to receive the award.
“It was kind of cool, because I know hard I work and how much time I put into it and how much I care about the kids. It was really neat to see that someone noticed, and not just noticed, but made an effort to nominate me.”
While she was pleased to be recognized for her efforts, Zemke said she didn’t need to receive an award to be dedicated to providing high-quality care for the kids she works with. Although she’s been operating Country Kids for just eight years, her experience in child care and education goes back much further.
“I’ve been working with children ever since I could babysit,” Zemke said.
She graduated from college with a teaching license for kindergarten through sixth grade but quickly realized her passion was for preschool instead.
“I like to give kids the head start they need before they start kindergarten,” she said. “They’re so proud of themselves when they do something for the first time, and I like to be a piece of that.”
In the past she’s worked and taught in daycare centers and nursery schools in Rochester, but when she decided to do in-home child care, she immediately loved it.
She now has seven children she cares for on a weekly basis, with ages ranging from 15 months to five years. Although she’s licensed to take on as many as 12 kids, she finds between six and eight is the most she can consistently provide high-quality care when working by herself.
That self-reliance and responsibility is one of the challenges Zemke remembers encountering when she first started in-home child care. Learning to be the only person on the job and having no one to turn to but herself when things came up throughout the day was an adjustment, but she said she’s learned to enjoy that aspect of child care and finds it keeps her day interesting.
“It’s not for everybody,” she said, “but this is where my gift is.”