A group of individuals greatly invested in the Ohio Valley are the entrepreneurs and small business owners who serve local residents - many of them children.
Whether they take care of babies while parents work; provide entertainment or inexpensive children's clothing; or encourage learning and exploration outside the school environment, these businesses meet the needs of children and families day in and day out.
Several entrepreneurs interviewed for this article had a common bond: They believe in ensuring the Ohio Valley remains a great place to raise children.
Preschool teacher Sharon Rich helps 5-year-old Katie Cecconi with an assignment at Country Junction in Mount Olivet.
Photo by Scott McCloskey
"I've lived in Wheeling now for 22 years, and I want to invest in Wheeling. We can sit around and complain about it or we can do something about it. It's certainly more fun to do something about it. ... I want Wheeling to be a great place to live," said Robert Strong, co-owner of SMART Centre Market and the SMART-Center. SMART stands for Science, Math, Art, Research and Technology.
Strong had always dreamed of opening an interactive science center for children. A West Virginia Wesleyan graduate, he had lived all over the United States and spent 10 years teaching in Africa and American Samoa before settling in Wheeling. He opened the SMART-Center in the old Kruger Street School in 1994 and soon after married Libby, also a science teacher.
A few years later, they moved the center to Warwood under the auspices of West Liberty University. When the college sold the building, the Strongs re-opened the center in the former Dad's Sweet Tooth shop on the corner of Market and 22nd streets adjacent to Centre Market. At this point, they also opened a science store, SMART Centre Market.
Q: How have entrepreneurs met the needs of today's economy?
A: In a number of ways including opening businesses that focus on child services. A number of such ventures have opened over the past decade and contribute to the overall quality of life in the local area.
"I love the fact of re-utilizing these great old buildings for a new purpose," Strong said.
In addition to providing science programs for school groups, Scout groups and during summer and holiday camps for a fee, the Strongs and colleague Richard Pollack sponsor more than 150 free science-based programs a year. These range from science demonstrations at the store every Saturday to about 40 StarWatch astronomy programs a year in locations such as Brooke Hills Park, Barkcamp State Park, Grand Vue Park and Centre Market.
They also host free annual events at Brooke Hills Park including National Astronomy Day and the West Virginia Kite Festival. Last year, Strong spearheaded the first Wheeling Rocks - Rock, Mineral and Gem Show.
In addition to the free community programs, Libby Strong is project director of the kit-based Handle On Science program. This RESA 6 program brings hands-on science kits to kindergarten through sixth-grade science classrooms in the five counties of the Northern Panhandle. The West Virginia Handle On Science program has been modeled by the West Virginia Department of Education, which is taking it statewide as SIMPLE (Science with Inquiry Modules and Problem based Learning Experiences).
The science store is filled with fossils and dinosaur bones; rocks and gems; science toys; local artwork, jewelry and crafts; and books for science lovers of all ages. And, in keeping with the previous use of the building, customers can indulge in a scoop or two of ice cream; the Strongs keep it local by selling Kirke's Ice Cream from St. Clairsville.
In the realm of recreation, both Tumblin' Tots in Bethlehem and Krazy 'Bout Sportz in Weirton offer local children an outlet for formal and informal activities. Carrie Roth opened Tumblin' Tots in the Bethlehem Village Plaza in April of 2007 as an indoor playground area for parents to bring children to run off some energy. She also offers classes in tumbling, yoga and sports basics for little ones. In an effort to serve busy parents, she allows them to drop off their children for supervised play time on the climbing and other kid-sized equipment.
At Krazy 'Bout Sportz LLC, located in the former Dunbar School, 2850 Weir Ave., Weirton, owners Rich and Patty Soplinski, Vince Soplinski and Dave and Mary Lou Pittman envisioned a community sports complex geared to children and families when they opened in September 2010.
"We know ourselves growing up there was never (anything) to do in Weirton," said Patty Soplinski, who is sisters with Mary Lou Pittman. "We wanted to give them a fun, safe place to come and have fun and interact, and to get them off the streets."
In addition to sports leagues (some for adults and children), such as soccer, roller hockey, flag football and basketball, the facility offers free family movie nights, party rentals, lock-ins, and even sports viewing parties and comedy nights for parents to have a fun night out.
The owners will be opening two sensory rooms in former classrooms on the second floor. Sensory rooms are therapeutic spaces designed to aid children on the autism spectrum or with other disorders. The rooms are being operated as a nonprofit business, called Piece by Peace Inc., and will be the only such rooms available in Weirton outside the school system. One will be opening this month and the other in a couple months.
On the practical side of childhood, several children's consignment and resale clothing, toy and equipment shops have opened in the Ohio Valley selling children's clothing. Bullfrogs & Butterflies LLC in Wheeling was one of the first, opening seven years ago by Patty Kota. After two years, she sold it to frequent customers Ricky and Bethany Moore.
"We were a young couple and a business was something we were interested in starting. We feel it's a great service to the community," Ricky Moore said. He noted the Elm Grove store on National Road allows parents to receive money back for the clothes their children wore only a few times or not at all.
"Kids go through clothes so fast," said the father of two boys, ages 5 1/2 and 2. Parents on tight budgets or who like to see their money stretch farther pay a fraction for brand name clothing in great condition - some with the original tags still attached.
The community also benefits, Moore said, because the business donates unsold clothing to local churches and other charities. The store also sells new handmade items such as jewelry, hats and headbands, made by local moms looking to earn some money for their families.
Bullfrogs & Butterflies, as well as other similar shops such as Let It Bee Boutique in Wheeling's Centre Market, Kallie's Kloset in North Wheeling and Bird's Nest in Shadyside, also offers used baby gear and toys. All the businesses have websites and/or Facebook pages that help them keep in touch with customers, give merchandise updates and answer questions about inventory.
Another community-minded business owner with children's best interests at heart, Sandy Hall of Mount Olivet opened a preschool and nursery school at Mount Olivet United Methodist Church in 1989 after teaching elementary school part time in the public school system.
"I just felt that the children coming into the kindergarten class ... they weren't prepared," said Hall.
She never intended to open a daycare center, too, but the needs of the community dictated otherwise. After a few years, she noticed that instead of moms coming to pick up their children, grandmothers were doing it because moms had to work. Then the grandmas started to ask Hall for names of babysitters, because the grandmas had to go back to work. In 2000, she purchased a building on W.Va. 88 in Mount Olivet that was large enough for both the preschool and daycare, naming it Country Junction.
"I was just keeping my fingers crossed that some way, somehow, we could get enough children in daycare to pay the mortgage," she said.
Today, the business has 14 employees, including director Lisa McCloskey, who had been Hall's aide at the church location. Sharon Rich has been the preschool teacher since Hall retired about five years ago. The center - which takes infants beginning at 3 weeks old - is at capacity most of the time, Hall said, and there is often a waiting list.
Location, she said, has been a big factor in her success - it is on a main road, in an area that has no other free-standing daycares, has plenty of parking, and space for a large playground in the back.
"It gives the community what they don't have and that is a full-scale daycare," Hall said.