GARNER, N.C. (WTVD) -- There is at least one oasis amidst North Carolina's child care desert.
More than 20 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, it's the frontline workers' turn to say thank you for the help they need so they can go to work and do their job.
"Who's going to take care for our families while we're away taking care of yours," Angee Plummer, a Triangle nurse, said. "I cannot do my job. I cannot be mom and healthcare provider at the same time. Cassandra Brooks is America Strong because she really does hold up the mantle for health care, for childcare and for safety for families."
Cassandra Brooks is the founder and manager of the Little Believers Academy, a child care center with locations in Garner and Clayton. The academies have remained open throughout the entire pandemic--enabling Plummer and her husband, who also works in healthcare, to keep working.
"She's outgoing, she's nurturing, she's compassionate," Plummer said of Brooks. "And she really stands firm on that she believes in. Our children with Cassandra and her team were safe and comfortable. I don't dare to imagine what it would be like without her and her team."
Cassandra Brooks and the Little Believers Academy are both examples of what it means to be "America Strong," a special series from ABC11 and ABC News celebrating the resilience of members of our community in the pandemic. That the Academy provided service amid the pandemic isn't even the only remarkable achievement; that the business has stayed open at all is a testament to Brooks because the industry in general continues to struggle.
"I did think about closing," Brooks said. "I talked to my husband about it and he said, 'If you close, when you start up again, it's going to be starting from scratch and you may not make it.' I thought about that and he was right. I really had to put my faith in Gd*. I'm not going to sugarcoat it any other way. I put my faith in Him and believe He was going to see us through to the other side."
A national survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children shows 82% of child care centers in North Carolina are experiencing a staffing shortage right now, with half saying it's difficult to recruit and retain qualified educators compared to before the pandemic. As many as 75%, moreover, identify low wages as the main recruitment challenge.
Brooks, however, has neither cut wages, cut staff nor cut services. The two locations today employ 20 teachers and care for at least 85 kids.
"Gd has given me a mission to care for young children and to be a leader in the community. Until He says otherwise, that's what I need to continue to do," Brooks maintained. "Thankfully we were able to take advantage of the PPP loan that helped me tremendously, especially at the beginning."
She also invested thousands of dollars of her own savings into improving HVAC systems and other cleaning enhancements, not to mention invest time chasing down supplies like toilet paper and Lysol.
As for where she got her motivation, she didn't have to look far when she saw the smiles in the classroom.
"As these kids grow older, they'll learn about this time, but I don't want to it be a time that will impact them in a negative way. It should be how we overcame. We got through this."
Parents certainly noticed, as many children attending LBA were there as moms and dads went to work as cashiers, clerks, first responders, corrections officers, gas station attendants and more.
"I see myself as just trying to make it day by day. Just thankful for each and every day," Brooks said. "This is my mission, my purpose, and when I'm not doing it, I feel like I'm not doing enough."
*In this story, the name of the Lord is spelled incompletely to honor the religious practices of the reporter. You can learn more here.