By Ryan Schoeck
After closing the front gate and walking up the porch steps, a small bamboo rack comes into view. Situated low to the ground next to the front door, the rack’s shelves are filled with an assortment of shoes. Glittery pink sandals rest next to yellow flip flops. Sneakers with built-in lights are stacked below scuffed red boots. Spiderman shoots a web across the ankle of a different pair. More notable than the assortment of flashy shoes however, is that they are all less than four inches in length.
Standing next to the rack in the doorway, a middle-aged woman with long salt and pepper hair clutches what appear to be gray oven mitts. Revealing a warm smile as she hovers in the threshold, she leans down to speak with a student. “You have the choice to either wear these slippers, or go without shoes at all. Remember, we’re trying to keep our floors as clean as possible,” she says. Hastily kicking off his tiny sandals, the little boy turns and hums a tune as he gallops inside to join his classmates. “Teacher Deb,” chuckling as she straightens herself up, follows the boy inside.
Deb and Christopher Michaels have been running Seven Stars Child Care out of their Jefferson Westside home for over 20 years. Located just below West 11th on the corner of Van Buren Street, their two story home doubles as both a living space and childcare center.
As Michaels walks into the kitchen from the foyer, she greets the children as they prepare for their afternoon snacks. The kids, who all seem disoriented and groggy from their recent naps, sleepily wave and say hello. The kitchen feels a little cluttered, but everything has its place. The bright walls are lined with children’s artwork; assorted heart-shaped drawings and framed posters alike. Michaels says that the yellow and red themes of the walls have not only been chosen for warmth and comfort, but because they remind her of the colors commonly used by her favorite artist, Frida Kahlo. She says that every room in the home features flooring made from reusable materials; the kitchen’s is a blend of bamboo and cork, while the bathroom is made from recycled water bottles. Even the paint on the walls is natural and chemical-free. While the majority of the house is dedicated to the school, the Michaels live in just 350 square feet upstairs, sharing the main floor’s kitchen and bathroom. “Our whole house is set up for the children,” she says. “We have to make it accessible for them, and Christopher and I have just gotten used to it.”
Michaels is 54 years old and wears a loose, flower printed dress and dark smock. She settles into a chair at the lowered kitchen table, fingers calmly crossed in her lap. Each finger possesses a band of gold or silver. She wears no makeup but a swath of silver jewelry instead. Her hair is tied back loosely, revealing a series of dangling earrings lining her left lobe. Just as she begins to speak, a small girl wanders in, struggling to move an oversized compost bucket. “Do you need help moving that, Tam?” Michaels asks. The child replies that she can handle it. Once the girl is gone Michaels leans in close and says, as if telling a secret, “I always knew I would work with kids. I believe it’s my calling.” She sits back up with a grin and takes a sip of her lemonade. “I distinctly remember telling my mother when I was 10 years old that ‘Someday I won’t have children of my own, but I will take care of them,’” She pauses momentarily to glance into the other room, even though “Teacher Chris” has the group of children captivated with a story he’s reading. Satisfied, she sits back down and continues her own story. “We moved from Milwaukee after I graduated college. After jumping around the Northwest for awhile, we eventually wound up here in Eugene,” she says with a laugh. Michaels says she used to date guys up until they said they wanted to have kids, at which point she knew she had to break up with them and move on. And although it wasn’t a fear of birth or anything else, she says, “I just always felt that I wouldn’t go through childbirth in my lifetime.”
Standing up from the table, Michaels opens the door to the back yard. Several blue bins surround a tree trunk just below the steps. “We make our own compost and have several gardens out front,” she says. At Seven Stars, everything they feed the children is organic and locally grown. And, although many of the kids aren’t vegetarian, the Michaels still serve a vegetarian menu but are sensitive to any dietary restrictions. She closes the door and motions back toward the stove. Neatly labeled on one of the cabinets is a list categorizing several of the kids’ food allergies. She says that this program is one of only a handful in Lane County that offer ‘family style’ eating, in which they teach the kids to pass dishes of food around the table. Michaels says she feels most American kids eat too fast, which is why Seven Stars tries to teach them to slow down and talk about what they are eating.
This is just one of many alternative approaches the Michaels are trying to instill in their students. The whole Seven Stars program has been built around teaching children to be aware of their surroundings. Michaels says that they spend a lot of time showing the children how to be sensitive to all living things– animals, plants and people alike.
These teaching principles seem to working for the program. With more than 20 years of childcare experience in Eugene alone, the Michaels have developed a reputation in the neighborhood. With roughly 30 families during the year, and many more names on a list, the couple is pleased with the program they have created. Michaels reflects on the students who have graduated but return to visit. Some bring gifts, others volunteer and a few even enroll their own children in the program. “It’s nice seeing kids who are all grown up now, and we feel proud knowing we helped start their lives off right here at Seven Stars,” Michaels says.
At the end of the day, several parents begin walking up the steps, eager to see their kids. Greetings and hugs are exchanged, as Michaels gives several children costumes to take for the weekend. She bends down to their level and makes the kids ‘shake on it’ that they will bring the borrowed clothing back on Monday. The kids quietly nod their heads and smile, running out the door for the day and pulling their little shoes from the rack as they go.