WORDS: Bre Jones Mulock
PICTURES: Whitney Patton
When life swells uncomfortably out of proportion and the phone buzzes impatiently every five minutes, Annette Larkin – the gregarious, charismatic director and owner of Happy Cubs Child Care Center who has a talking speed fast enough to challenge any auctioneer – knows exactly where she needs to go for a deep breath and re-centering: The baby room.
Turning her phone on silent for a few moments, Larkin beelines out of her office and down an outside hall with her long, jet-black hair trailing behind and enters a room where little round faces peer up from tummy time or rest peacefully in cribs neatly lined up in rows.
“When it gets crazy in here, for me, I head to the baby room,” said Larkin, leaning in with a sly smile and raised eyebrows as if revealing a secret. “I can take a break and sit and rock a baby or watch one just getting ready to walk. Children for me have always been a grounding.”
Larkin, a long-time Bradenton resident with a 35-year career in child care that has unfolded like well-loved pages of a favorite storybook now touching generations of Manatee County residents, has poured heart and soul into her community.
While raising two daughters and growing a child care center that maintains some of the top ratings in the state and has a waiting list 100 deep, Larkin has devoted much of her life to volunteerism, including actively and passionately sharing her voice on four current local boards: The Early Learning Coalition (ELC), Foundation for Dreams, Our Daily Bread, and State College of Florida’s Advisory Board for the ECE Programs.
“I try to be under the radar, but I will absolutely do anything if it has to do with children or first responders,” said Larkin, donning bright turquoise statement earrings and revealing a high energy that never seems to sputter on empty. “On the boards I serve, I’m not afraid to say, ‘No, that’s not going to work,’ or ‘That looks good on paper, but won’t work in real life.’ A lot of people want to sit on boards for status. Well, I don’t have time for that.”
Larkin exudes too much drive to just “sit” on boards. Not only has she been a member of the ELC board since its inception, but she’s also serving as the current vice-chairman of the Foundation for Dreams board.
“Annette leads with grace and dignity, always helping to build a culture of philanthropy in our local community and for our organization,” said Elena Cassella, Executive Director at Foundation for Dreams.
Comforting, rich scents of meals like baking lasagna or a boiling dinner (meat, potatoes and carrots) would drift from Larkin’s Boston, Massachusetts family kitchen every day at 5 pm sharp. Growing up in a traditional Irish/Italian/Catholic family, Larkin shared a dinner table with 11 siblings, including her identical twin sister and many foster children throughout the years.
“Our dinner table only sat 10, so my twin sister, Angela, and I would eat in the dining room at our mother’s piano bench,” said Larkin who has been known to automatically scan an airplane before taking off to note inventory of children and their possible needs with help going to the bathroom. “We all looked forward to being together. Our home was always the neighborhood place to gather and everyone was always welcome.”
While never feeling in need, sharing a childhood with a sprawling family often meant less funds for extras like horseback riding lessons or college accounts. Working as a nanny and saving up babysitting money, Larkin carved her own path through higher education. Determined to succeed, she sought out opportunities and hopes to help other families in her community do the same.
“I sit on boards to help make our community better for others, especially those in need,” said Larkin, pausing to help one of her teachers locate a child’s breathing treatment for the day. “Just because you only make $13,000 a year, that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to have quality child care or the same care as a physician’s kids. Your salary shouldn’t define you. We all deserve to be able to choose a better life for our children.”
Before sunrise each work day, a stream of eager babies, toddlers, and preschoolers begin flowing through the doors at Happy Cubs, a five-star rated child care program across from Blake Medical Center that first opened its doors 38 years ago as a child care resource for hospital employees to enroll their children.
Laughter and a faint scent of finger paint fill the rooms where meticulously organized toys line up like toy soldiers ready for a day of playing and learning. Grateful for her relationship with Blake, Larkin says the connection continues to blossom as a win-win.
“Employees of the hospital can feel good about dropping off their kids, about being a nurse or a doctor or maintenance worker and still being a mom or a dad,” said Larkin who shares the families she serves are currently about 87 percent connected to Blake. The program is also open to the community. “On a lunch break, they can walk across the street to grab a hug from their kids or even just check on them. We are open door all the of the time.”
As teachers and visitors recently meandered in and out of Larkin’s office to ask questions or find supplies, a crystal-clear theme shimmered to life: Happy Cubs is not just a child care center. It’s a tight-nit family that boasts a long and winding history of caring for multi-generations growing up in Bradenton. With each and every visitor, Larkin would pipe up to weave a narrative, sharing surprising facts like, “Oh, she’s a teacher here now, but I had her as a baby at the center and, by the way, I also have her kids here now, too.”
Beaming with pride, Larkin’s smile glowed brighter and brighter as she continued to rattle off all the kids who played, rode tricycles, napped, and explored the alphabet at her center and are now adults bringing their own kids to Happy Cubs.
“It’s like déjà vu!” Larkin exclaimed with a chuckle. “I’ll have a kid giving me an expression or acting a certain way, and then I’ll remember their mom or dad did the same thing. I’m so fortunate to see kids grow into adults and stay or come back to this community. I love my community – it’s a place where everyone knows everyone, and we all look out for our kids.”
As if waiting in the wings and stepping out on cue, Director of Maintenance for Blake, Dave Roehl, popped his head into Larkin’s office to not only check on a work order, but also peek in on someone special: His grandson. Two out of his four grandchildren have been Happy Cubs kids. Even more profound, both his sons attended the center as babies, too.
“This is a great center for children, and it’s this way mainly because of her,” he said, pointing a finger at Larkin.
Perhaps families continue to cycle back to Larkin because she creatively builds unique programs to feed growing minds. Inspiring a new generation of community volunteers, Larkin reached out to Manatee High School’s Spanish Club to invite students to teach her kids Spanish once a week in return for service hours.
A voracious reader who will drive back to the office at night in her PJs if she happens to leave her book at work, Larkin developed a reading program to bridge the kids with hospital employees. She reached out to administration at Blake and invited employees to lead story time for the kids.
“The response was amazing,” said Larkin, who will not hesitate to open a cabinet door and show off her impressive stack of mystery and romance novels she shares with her staff. “Almost every top administrator has been over to read. It’s been good for the employees, too. I might have an ICU nurse with a terminally ill patient come over to read. She gets hugged on and kissed on by the kids and a little break. She can go back to work a little refreshed.”
When she is not running a school or striving to make change in her community, Larkin is probably whipping up one of her famous auction baskets, which she does annually for the ELC Golf Classic fundraiser. With a flair for fashion and style, she relishes in the challenge and artistry of piecing together auction items benefiting various community fundraisers.
“I like to think about how I would want a basket,” said Larkin. “If it’s a limo ride, I would pair it with a nice dinner, maybe champagne with pretty glasses. How about a wallet with a $100 bill in it for the man? I’m the one who will seek out ribbons with golf balls on them for a golf basket. I love doing this. I love seeing the joy it brings.”
The joy in helping others has inspired Larkin to march up to Tallahassee when she retires and advocate tirelessly for child care. But for now, she’s content surrounded by her Happy Cubs kids.
“I love being around these kids because they are so innocent,” said Larkin. “They don’t care if you can’t read well or if you have a funny voice or how you look. They are non-judgmental.”
Well, almost… “I will say they can say the funniest things,” Larkin said. “I had this one little girl who came up to me and said, ‘Ms. Annette, I like your outfit and you look nice today, but you really could use a little lipstick.’ And you know what? I probably could have used some lipstick.”