The children were napping and Lois Brown was in the office at Step by Step Early Learning Center on May 22, when her daughter ran in to tell her a fire had broken out.

Staff at the Madison Heights child care center woke up the children and told them they had to leave as flames damaged the roof of a portion of the Town and Country Shopping Center, which houses the day care on U.S. 29 Business. Brown, the day care center’s owner, said the children were out within minutes and before fire trucks arrived.

“They were great about it,” Brown said. “This is what we practice every month anyway so they kind of knew … they were ready.”

While fire drills helped prepare the center for the unexpected turn of events that afternoon, the task of finding a new home for the displaced business providing care for 66 children was enormous. Help came immediately through Shelly and Sam Hunt, co-owners of the Caterpillar Clubhouse, a Madison Heights child care center, who reached out to allow Step by Step Early Learning Center to temporarily lease a building it owns at 120 Dillard Road.

Within a week of the fire, Step by Step was back up and running in the Dillard Road building of nearly 10,000 square feet, a short drive from its two-story location in the shopping center.

“It’s nice, it’s spacious; it’s what we need,” Brown said. “It was a huge blessing. Otherwise we wouldn’t have had anywhere to go. I just don’t know where we would be in the process now if they hadn’t reached out to us …”

Sam Hunt said he and his wife felt led to reach out to help. The facility Brown is leasing was where the Caterpillar Clubhouse’s Madison Heights location started out before opening its current location next door on Dillard Road.

“We felt for them, and they’re another small business trying to make it in the community,” Hunt said. “We knew it would be a good fit because it was a day care before. … Glad to help them out in an unfortunate situation.”

The fire also displaced two other businesses in the affected portion of the Town and Country center. Work continues on repairing the facility, but for now the waiting game is on for Brown’s day care on moving back in. Sam Bryant, the county’s director of public safety, said the fire remains under investigation and a cause hasn’t been determined yet.

Brown said June 9 marked the 10-year anniversary of the day care opening in the Town and Country center. Before that she ran a home day care for a decade, starting out with a dozen children.

On the day of the fire, which started at about 2 p.m., the children mostly were calm and a bus from neighboring Temple Christian School came to pick them up, which Brown described as a huge blessing. Many parents came to get their children after hearing of the incident.

She said a major lesson learned is to keep on top of fire drills and stressing the importance for the children in case of a real-life situation. They practice the drills once per month and she said they are on guard and prepared at all times.

“That’s the greatest fear … we counted the kids at least eight, nine times,” Brown said.

The day care serves children from six weeks old to age 12. While many of the youngsters are from Amherst County, some also come from Lynchburg and Forest, Brown said.

She said they have enjoyed the new temporary setting.

“They’ve adjusted well and I think it was the quick turnaround of having somewhere to go and not having a lot of downtime,” Brown said.

The incident was the first time the day care has dealt with a fire, she said. It suffered a total loss, with the space Brown leases having water and smoke damage.

Within several weeks, Brown said an insurance check helped in the recovery and a parent recently donated toys and other items from a local exterminating business. Brown said the day care immediately paid for lunch boxes and knapsacks.

“That stuff was floating in water when we went back,” she said.

She thanked all who drove by the business that day and offered assistance. Step by Step especially is grateful to the Hunts, Temple Christian School and first responders on scene, Brown said.

“We thank God we got out of there with everybody’s kids.”

She has thought much about moving back into the location once it’s ready and how the transition will affect the children.

“But we’ll go back unless God opens another door,” Brown said.

Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

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Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

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