SPRING HILL — Shannon Dewey is a lot like the kids she serves, eager to engage visitors and show off a little.
"Come see my toy," the grandmother says to nearly everyone who spends any time at the headquarters of the Pasco Hernando Early Learning Coalition that straddles the county line.
She goes to the parking lot with all the enthusiasm of someone who just bought a sleek red sports car.
Dewey's "toy" actually is a clunky Ford Econoline van that houses thousands of playthings for preschoolers. The collection includes books, dolls, games, puzzles, textured flash cards, and bags of items with themes such as the ocean or jungle.
"It's like Santa Claus all year," she coos. "I love my job."
Dewey is the mobile outreach specialist for the coalition, a nonprofit agency set up by the state to oversee subsidized child care programs for needy families as well as a separate voluntary prekindergarten program open to all Florida kids. Many centers that accept child care subsidies also offer the prekindergarten. The van serves about 100 child care providers in Pasco and Hernando counties.
Dewey's clients are primarily providers who are licensed by the state to care for small numbers of children in their homes, although centers may also use the service. But they typically have more staff, so getting out to obtain toys is less of a problem.
A former prekindergarten teacher, Dewey was hired in November and found the van, bought in 2003 for $45,498, had been mostly idle. She quickly changed that.
"I try to stay out about five hours each day," she said. That equates to a monthly visit to each provider. Dewey logs about 200 to 300 miles a week in the diesel-powered van, which has a GPS system and a backup camera for safety. The van also is wrapped with the coalition's Web page logo of kids in hard hats and its slogan: "Children's Hearts, Minds and Futures Under Construction. Proceed with Caution."
"Shannon just lives and breathes that mobile outreach van," said Jim Farrelly, the coalition's executive director. One recent visitor who came away particularly impressed was Monesia T. Brown, director of the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, the state agency that governs local child care coalitions.
"She was thrilled with this resource van," Farrelly said.
The process works like a library bookmobile.
During a visit, child care operators can check out toys from the collection. When Dewey returns, they then turn those in and exchange them for others.
"It's like going to Toys 'R' Us," said Nancy Nairns, a former Pasco school district aide who runs a home day care in the Shady Hills area.
Many of her kids have been cared for at her home since infancy, so they get bored with the same toys.
The free service also allows her to keep rates reasonable and invest more money in higher-quality lunches.
Elizabeth Dagenais and her kids at This Little Piggy's Day Care in Spring Hill were eager to see the van pull up last week. They stopped their water play as soon as they saw Dewey drive up.
"Are you guys ready for new toys?" Dewey asked.
"Baby dolls," one little girl squealed.
While Dewey watched the kids at the sprinkler, Dagenais climbed aboard the van.
After looking and not finding the book Where the Wild Things Are, she picked out several items, including a book about getting along, something her kids can use right now.
"They're at an age where they need to learn how to stop hitting or tattling," she said.
Dagenais said she's grateful for the van because it enables her to try out new toys before deciding whether to invest in them. Some toys can cost as much as $50.
Before, she scrounged at yard sales and used bookstores. Now she has more time to devote to her own family and invest in her business, which, like most day cares, has a slim profit margin.
"You barely cover expenses," she said.
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.