Khiari McAlpin, a two-time Elementary Education graduate of the Auburn University College of Education, was simply born with a heart for service to others.
“Wherever I looked in my early life I saw people giving back,” she said. “My grandmother Freida Britton and great aunts were beauticians and that inspired me. My teachers were very important to me, as were my service clubs at school. I learned the idea of Biblical service and sacrifice at church. So I have wanted to be a beautician and a physical therapist and everything in between, but what I wanted most, from my earliest age, was to be a teacher. I would come home from school and line up my Barbie dolls and start them in on that day’s lesson. I guess it was inevitable that I would end up surrounded every day by young children and doing my best to lead them toward a life of fullness, creativity, and service to others.”
And just where did the winner of the 2019 Auburn University Young Entrepreneur of the Year wind up? At Vinehouse Nursery in Alabaster, Alabama, where she owns and directs the respected, award-winning, day care center that welcomes infants and preschoolers, along with their families, into a place that seems to bring out the best in everyone.
“Our name and our philosophy is based in scripture, specifically the 15th chapter of John, where it says ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.’ I believe in doing things on God’s time and sharing the many blessings that have come my way. I am in no hurry because I know that my time to harvest will come if we continue on with the work we have been given here.”
And there is plenty of work to be done. It is unusual for a daycare center, even one as innovative and joyful as Vinehouse, to have its owner and director onsite all day every day. But that is the case here.
“We are open for 12 hours a day, five days a week, from six till six,” McAlpin said. “We have eight teachers, plus one full-time substitute. The children arrive as early as 6:15 a.m., and lessons from our Mother Goose Time curriculum begin at nine. Our parents depend on us and we work with them in partnership in all things. Their focus and our focus is always the same: the children.”
All roads lead to Auburn, and the lessons learned there
Although her parents are native Alabamians, McAlpin spent her early years in Asheville and Charlotte, NC, before moving to Tuscaloosa at age six, where she eventually graduated from Paul W. Bryant High School.
“Because of my early North Carolina roots I really didn’t identify as a Bama fan, especially after my older sister Brittany went to Auburn. I visited her and fell in love with the campus. It felt right, it felt like home, and so I just always knew that Auburn is where I would go.”
She started off in Kinesiology, with plans for PT school, but that age-old passion for teaching pushed her back to Elementary Education. Experiences at Creative Discovery Childcare in Auburn, where she worked part-time, plus a study abroad experience in Africa, reinforced her life’s calling.
“The College of Education played a huge role in my ultimate desire to serve others in my life and career,” McAlpin said. “One person especially, Dr. Octavia Tripp, molded me in terms of my relationships with children. From her I learned so much about so many things: classroom management, how to organize, how to set up my room, how to talk regularly to parents about the good and the bad, how to set rules in the beginning, and just the value of communication. I had many great teachers, but she was the one who really instilled these things in me. She also taught me the value of understanding a child’s lived experiences. Until we know where a child is coming from, we can’t really meet them where they need us to be. And they do need us. All of them. I believe that.”
Wherever McAlpin worked, her principals noted these traits with great appreciation. It showed through in the community as well, as McAlpin was named the 2015 Teacher of the Year in her school district in Charlotte, and more recently when Vinehouse was named the Shelby County Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year. She attributes this success to her Auburn classroom experiences and internships. She said she felt prepared and ready to lead on her first day as a classroom teacher.
“In my three teaching jobs in Charlotte, LaGrange, and Auburn, I have always been in a Title I or low-income school,” she said. “In that sense, I have always been called to do more than just help children with their academics. So many of them had never seen the beach or gone to a movie. They have asked if they could call me their mom. They just need someone to care. We all need that.”
That is not so much the case at Vinehouse, since Alabaster is a relatively affluent suburb in up-and-coming Shelby County. Most of the children, she said, come from two-parent homes with good incomes. The parents share McAlpin’s desire for total child development and do their part at home.
Sharing the love
McAlpin’s business plan is inextricably tied up with her life plan. She relishes the blessings around her, but knows greater rewards are coming.
“I’m 31 years old and have a thriving business with plans to add a pre-K classroom to our existing structure. We have a full house of students with a waiting list. We are regulated by DHR, who would permit us to have many more students than we now have. But the quality of our program, and knowing how hard our teachers work to make each child a priority each day, is what drives us. We charge about $1000 per child per month, and I try to put that money into two things: improving teacher salaries, and quality in everything we do. We serve two meals a day, plus snacks and drinks, in a wholesome manner. We are Alabama’s first, and probably only, organic and all-natural daycare. We use wooden toys and serve great food catered from Home Plate Cooking that includes a meat, two vegetables, fruit, and delicious organic milk. Our curriculum includes Spanish and American Sign Language, so our non-verbal students are included. The curriculum also includes science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (S.T.E.A.M.), where we have an intern from the University of Alabama at Birmingham come and teach hands-on lessons with our toddlers. We simply want to focus our resources on what makes us special: our great facilities and curriculum and our wonderful, caring, and talented teachers.”
One of those teachers is McAlpin’s mother Cynthia Kittrell. “Combining family and business can be a bad thing, but in this case it is great,” she said. “Mom is a blessing. She is so talented as a teacher and of course she always has my back. Our situation here really could not be much better.”
Family also includes the parents. “Another way we try to use our resources is to build love and unity among our families,” she said. “Every quarter we have some sort of Parent’s Night Out where our families and staff can connect and build relationships. In February we had Date Night, where we provided childcare on a Saturday and gave the parents some time alone to relax. We had a Christmas dinner. We all went to a Birmingham Barons baseball game and rented a suite and served a buffet. Everything was on us. That was so much fun we are going to do the Barons game again in June. So the whole thing with parents getting to know each other outside of school has been great. Through us, they realize they live in the same neighborhoods. Carpools have formed. It all works to make us all better.”
On the day Keystone visited Vinehouse, the children were all at work making gifts for Mother’s Day.
We simply want to focus our resources on what makes us special: our great facilities and curriculum and our wonderful, caring, and talented teachers.
“My teachers will tell you that more children would mean more revenue for the business, but typically teachers are not properly valued for what they do. Our staff is teaching and nurturing all the time. A lot of their focus is one-on-one, and too many students would strain that capacity. They are working hard, and I would not be here without them. I try to show them that through how we use our resources.”
Except for her mother, McAlpin did not know any of her staff before she opened the business less than two years ago. In addition to interviews and rigorous background checks, Vinehouse’s teacher applicants must present lesson plans and demonstrate that they are the best. In exchange, they are rewarded with professional development opportunities and a unique, loving environment where their creativity and talent are appreciated.
Best is yet to come
Vinehouse’s fabulous facility was previously a different day care center. It was called The Perfect Place, and that is how McAlpin feels about the way her world and her business have come together.
“I truly feel that God has sent me here,” she said. “I love our children and our staff and our whole atmosphere. There are lots of opportunities around me but I don’t want to move too fast. I want our children to feel this is more than just a place to go during the day. I want them to have an experience.”
Things continue to relate back to Auburn even as they fall into place in Shelby County. “Early on we needed a new high-end, six-child stroller, but the cost was prohibitive,” she recalled. “One of my good friends at Auburn Jerraud Powers, who was a great Auburn Tiger and had an eight-year NFL career, launched his Team Freeze Foundation when his playing days were over. He heard about our need and told his board about us. They sent us a check for nearly $2,500! Things just keep working out that way for us.”
I love our children and our staff and our whole atmosphere. There are lots of opportunities around me but I don’t want to move too fast. I want our children to feel this is more than just a place to go during the day. I want them to have an experience.
McAlpin believes that another Vinehouse could thrive in Trussville, which is experiencing a growth pattern similar to Alabaster’s. She would love to open a branch in Auburn.
“I’m not sure what will come next, but I know I did not do this for the money,” she concluded. “Right now I choose to live very simply. This is the time of my life when I am working and giving to others. I hope to do this another ten years or so before retirement as the director. I could see myself staying on as owner, maybe living at Lake Martin where I could be close to Auburn and close enough to visit here. I’d like to have time to visit and volunteer in Auburn schools. I love Auburn. But right now I am living in my purpose of what God has called me to do. That is enough to be thankful for.”