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Child-care Center Fulfills Founder's Dream

SANFORD - Charlotte McLean loves children. That's good, because she has about 80 of them.

Since 2008, McLean has owned and been director of Stop-n-Drop Academic Center, located at the W.B. Wicker Business Campus, in Sanford.

"This business really has met all of my expectations," she said with a smile.

McLean has always had a soft spot in her heart for children. Growing up - and even as an adult - she was always the one willing to take neighborhood children to the park or baby-sit.

Career-wise, she started out in a very different direction. After graduating from Lee County High School in 1986, she went to work as a forklift operator at Federal Molding Corp. One day, a friend in the childcare business suggested that, with her love of children, she should go into childcare as a career. McLean liked the idea.

"In 1997, I left my job to enroll at Central Carolina Community College for a degree in Early Childhood Education," she said. "I also opened an academic child care facility in my home in Tramway. It had the highest 5-star rating for child care centers and still serves about a dozen children."

McLean received her Early Childhood Education Associate degree in 2006 and her ECE Teacher degree in 2007. By then, she was ready to expand, to open a large childcare center in the community.

For that, she knew she needed training in developing and running a business that could serve a large number of children, employ about a dozen people, meet all legal requirements, and be profitable.

So, she contacted Jim Felton, the director of CCCC's Small Business Center in Lee County. The SBC exists to help would-be entrepreneurs become successful small business owners and to help existing small businesses become more successful.

For his promotion of small business over the past 14 years, the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce named Felton its 2010 Small Business Advocate of the Year.

"Charlotte is a success story because she not only brought a dream, but also worked hard to get credentials that gave her creditability," Felton said. "She put forth the effort to learn the skills required for success as a small business owner."

Felton suggested she start with the college's Rural Entrepreneurship through Action Learning (REAL) program. McLean took the one-semester course and credits it with helping her gain the skills and knowledge to establish and run a successful business.

"I developed a business plan," she said. "The goal of REAL is to help you improve it so you can succeed."

In addition, Felton brought in experienced business people such as bankers and advertising experts to help the REAL students understand what is needed to be successful, from financial management to dealing with legal regulations.

Charlotte also benefited from a Learn-to-Assist Grant through the N.C. Small Business Network and the Kellogg Foundation. With this, she was able to fund a basic web site and market her business on the Internet, develop a brand and logo, and receive legal advice.

"Jim worked with me through the whole process," McLean said. "When I finally opened my business, it almost exactly matched the business plan I had developed, down to the state-of-the-art kitchen and the security."

McLean's Stop-n-Drop Academic Center occupies about 6,000 square feet on the lower level of the W.B. Wicker Business Campus, the historic former W.B. Wicker School. Each age level, from infant to age 12, has its own teachers and a room invitingly supplied with learning toys and materials. The center operates on three shifts and is licensed to have up to 91 children each shift. So far, McLean and her staff serve about 80 children.

"Miss Charlotte," as the children affectionately know her, loves her work and seeing her dream come true.

"If anybody is thinking of starting a business, go and talk to Jim at the Small Business Center and the REAL program," she said. "Then you begin with a wealth of information and opportunities. It can save you a lot of corrective action, time and money."

Walking down the center's hall, she dropped in on the two-year-old class, greeting each child with a big smile and calling each by name. The children returned the smile with even bigger ones.

McLean looked around at them again and said, "I'm happy every day I come to work."

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