TAMPA — Barbara Austin-Lowe likes to say nothing can happen until someone is ready for it. She applies this philosophy to life as a whole — and to potty training, too. Say, for instance, a toddler wakes up in the morning and hasn't used the bathroom. Say he drinks more than 4 ounces of water and hasn't gone. He may be ready. "Then, mommy," Austin-Lowe said, "we've got to get them to the potty." And when they get there? It should take less than 10 days to train them to keep going back, she said.
Austin-Lowe, 56, is the day care director at Metropolitan Ministries, the charity that provides services to homeless families in Tampa.
A few years ago, she started a "potty training boot camp" modeled on one she developed as a private day care operator. Counting both day cares, she has taught well over 200 children how to go to the bathroom.
Her boot camp is a choreographed routine: Bathroom calls every half hour, songs, jigs, and cheering from teachers. Consistency is the key.
She has a 10-day guarantee for most children — a revved-up time frame from the typical six-month estimate given by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
"The whole thing about it is making children feel like they've accomplished the world when they go to potty," she said.
Before she instituted the boot camp, Metropolitan's day care functioned like most do, leaving bathroom lessons to parents.
But officials found that instability in the parents' lives meant children were still in diapers and pull-ups relatively late, sometimes when they were close to school age, said Christine Long, a senior programs officer at Metropolitan.
"Homeless families have a difficult time making that happen," she said.
So Metropolitan decided to fill that role. "It really builds the self-esteem of the children and their families," Long said. "And it really helps with the parents' expenses."
The children may backslide as their families come under new stress, she said, "but they now have the skills, and the self esteem goes a long way."
Austin-Lowe said she sometimes does more talking to the mothers than the children.
"I say, 'I realize your life is stressed, but you've got to do this,' " she said. "This is part of being a mom."
She should know. Austin-Lowe had her first child at 16, her second while in college. She wasn't ready to be a mother.
"I was still a kid myself," she said.
She said she was lucky: her mother helped.
Austin-Lowe wasn't ready until later in life to make a profession out of caring for children. She'd worked in banking, then as a financial assistant in a hospital, for decades.
But in the late 1990s, one of her granddaughters came home from day care with another child's pacifier in her mouth.
"I wanted to be able to take care of my grandchildren," she said.
She ended up at Metropolitan Ministries in 2008.
"This is the place God led me to," she said. "Working here has been a joy because every day I come in here and make one of these babies smile, or one of these parents smile."
Francisco Velazquez's 2-year-old daughter Jamaya is going through the boot camp now.
"She just started and we're already seeing improvements," Velazquez said.
He said his family, which had been staying with relatives before landing at Metropolitan Ministries, is having a much easier time with Jamaya than one of her older sisters, who they were trying to potty-train while they were homeless.
It was hard, he said, because they were worried the girl might have an accident on someone else's furniture, so they just kept her in pull-ups longer.
Michelle Daniels' 2-year-old daughter Alyssa went through the boot camp and trained in less than 15 days.
"I was really surprised when they told me not to bring the pull-ups," said Daniels, whose family moved to the shelter in August.
Reach Jodie Tillman at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.