Taking care of those precious ‘gems’

3 minutes read
Posted 20 June, 2024
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Huge demand for quality childcare has prompted experienced Wellington childcare providers Vivien and David Hitchins to buy three more Wakatipu centres, bringing their total to four.

The couple has been greatly immersed in the realm of Early Childhood Education for more than 20 years, starting out in the industry on the Kapiti Coast when their own two children were little. “It provided an opportunity to craft enriching environments for young minds - a passion that’s propelled us forward ever since,” Vivien says.

The family-owned business has three boutique Wellington Childcare facilities in Island Bay, Johnsonville and Miramar, and now four around Queenstown. They first launched in Queenstown when they opened Curious Minds Early Learning at Five Mile in October last year. The previous facility had closed, and the Hitchins were driven by an ambition to extend nationwide, knowing that quality childcare was crucial, Vivien says.

“It’s become our passion. Early childhood education is so important. You’re looking after people’s most prized precious gifts. It’s a big responsibility and huge privilege.”

Taking over the three new Gems Childcare properties from the end of May the Hitchins have retained all the current teachers, as well as the 10 staff already employed at Five Mile, all highly trained in nurturing, loving, and learning for littlies, from six months to five years.

The three centres – Rata at Kawarau Heights, Miro at Lake Hayes Estate and Kowhai at Lower Shotover, cater for almost 190 children, and there’s already a waiting list at Rata, which operates for longer hours.

Besides ensuring their centres get regular makeovers and everything is in top condition, they place huge emphasis on valuing their staff and offering full pay parity with kindergartens is a big priority.

“We recognise the critical role that well-trained educators play in shaping the future of children and we really value our teachers as they’re imperative for quality childcare,” Vivien says. “We’ve brought some amazing educators in from The Philippines since the Accredited Work Visa scheme was launched and they’re such beautiful people. It really changes their lives,” she says.

By welcoming foreign teachers, Vivien says they’ve not only enriched the educational environment with diverse perspectives, but also addressed the shortage of qualified professionals in Aotearoa at present.

There’s a wonderful multi-cultural flavour on their teams, mixing Kiwis and many other cultures, all equally versed and qualified in Te Reo and Maori culture. “We’re operating in a more transient, multi-cultural environment with so much lovely cultural diversity. We’re very sensitive to celebrating all our different cultures while also linking in with Te Reo.”

Realising the seriousness of Queenstown’s housing shortages, the Hitchins purchased an eight-bedroom, staff accommodation property where teachers and staff can live. “We really wanted our foreign educators to enjoy a safe and beautiful living environment,” she says. “We’ve become like family.”

The new Gems Centres all operate a weekly Nature Play programme during which the children go on a farm or nature visit, year-round weather permitting, gummies in tow. There are also trips to Arrowtown Library and other local locations. Vivien says staff always say they’ve noticed big changes in some of the children, especially after engaging in the outdoor trips.

The Hitchins once owned a retirement village in Rotorua where the family’s love of bike trails was born, so Queenstown with its stunning scenery and high-quality trails was a huge attraction when they were looking to expand. They now live here part-time. “There’s a specialness about being here.”

Son Harrison, 25, now heads up property and facility safety, while daughter Sophia, 20, teaches part-time while studying.

“Our vision is to just keep building the businesses,” Vivien says. “Gems has an amazing reputation, so we want to build on that.”

It’s a totally different industry environment to the one they started out in more than 20 years ago, when centres were usually in converted houses. Staffing is now one of the greatest challenges. However, the quality and standard of centres has vastly improved. “I think parents and operators expect more so the standards are really high which is great.”

They don’t take lightly the privilege of nurturing what is most dear to parents’ hearts and it’s “truly a blessing”. “We’re really grateful to the amazing communities that have entrusted us with such a monumental responsibility,” Vivien says.

“Every day is different, but the laughter, growth and curiosity of those little people in our centres continues to inspire us and remain a constant station in the heart of what we are trying to achieve.”

Vivien Hitchins

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