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Be Inspired Series

Bernie McElroy

Nursery Owner And Manager
Over the Rainbow Day Nursery

A former teacher, Bernie runs her family-owned Over the Rainbow Day Nursery in south Belfast which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

What does your job entail?

As owner and manager of two family-run nurseries, I wear many hats on a daily basis. Having spent 25 years building a dedicated and highly experienced team, my key focus is to ensure that the quality we are renowned for is nurtured and maintained.

Managing ongoing in-house training is essential, as is personal communication with staff, parents and children. I have learnt to delegate but still play a pivotal role in the day-to-day delivery of our specialist service. I take a highly personal interest in the needs of both parents and children and I am passionate about maintaining Over the Rainbow's warm, caring, family atmosphere.

Word-of-mouth recommendation is hugely important and we are proud that customers advocate us because of the individual service and professionalism they experience at first hand.

Is it 9- 5?

The nurseries are open from 7.30am — 6.00pm but inevitably work continues after hours. Demands on my time can be substantial but the needs of both parents and children can never be sacrificed. I try to strike a healthy work/life balance but it certainly couldn't be described as 9-5! As a working mother I am not complaining, as the flexibility has been of great benefit.

How did you get into this line of work?

A classic case of ‘needs must’. I couldn't find the type of childcare that I wanted so I used my experience gained abroad to service a need. Hopefully history will repeat itself when all our young people return from their travels with lots of energy and new ideas!

Outline your career to date

My husband and I both qualified with Bachelor of Education degrees from Queen’s University in the early ’80s when jobs were few. Just like the young graduates emigrating today, we decided to spend a few years in America and I worked in a US pre-school centre which my children attended.

On my return to Belfast, the lack of appropriate childcare made me reflect on my experience in America. In 1988, Over the Rainbow in Eglantine Avenue, south Belfast became the very first private, family-run day nursery in Northern Ireland. Demand grew rapidly, my husband joined me in the business and we opened our second nursery at Deramore Drive in ’89.

Although the opportunity for further expansion beckoned, I wanted to concentrate on setting the highest standard for quality childcare in Northern Ireland. This dedication has thankfully been endorsed by many hundreds of families over the past 25 years. Both my husband and I continue to work full-time in the business.

Tell us about your qualifications/training.

I am a great believer in ongoing training and have personally undertaken a number of courses both in supervisory management and childcare.

I think my teaching degree is an essential foundation, providing solid background knowledge of child development, educational psychology and the ability to devise programmes which enhance learning through play and other activities. This, coupled with 25 years’ valuable experience, has helped us to position Over the Rainbow as a model of excellence in our field.

What qualities are required for your job — personal and professional?

On a personal level, I feel my experience as a mother of five is invaluable. This helps me to empathise with parents, especially as they go through the trauma of returning to work and entrusting their first child to the care of others.

An essential requirement is an ability to listen and respond to the many and varied concerns and needs of our clients. A sense of humour and an ability to multi-task is a must — but that's something we females are equipped with from birth!

On a professional level, I think that the key person in a quality day nursery should hold a relevant third level qualification. A professionally-run day nursery should deliver a holistic service catering for the emotional, physical and educational needs of each individual child. It’s important, therefore, that management is equipped with the background knowledge to fully understand and effectively implement this philosophy.

What are the biggest challenges and rewards of your work?

Building a loyal and dedicated team of staff is probably the most challenging task and it's rewarding that many of our staff have been with us for more than 10 years. However, the greatest reward of all is our continuing success and the satisfaction of having played a significant role in the early care and education of so many confident and happy children.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I like to keep in touch with everything that is happening in the childcare field through publications and research and also enjoy a good novel. Because our three eldest children work outside Northern Ireland, staying in contact keeps us busy too.

I enjoy walking and cycling and I share a love of music with my husband, so live music and concerts are always on the wish list.

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.

I've recently taken up double bass. I’m a great advocate of lifelong learning so I like to practise what I preach. Music is definitely a passion I bring to my job — you’ll often hear me leading a hearty sing-song with the children at Over the Rainbow.

Who has inspired you most in your life?

Both of my parents instilled confidence in me from an early age and I have inherited their ‘can do’ work ethic. The strength and support of a caring family is such a gift in life.

I also have to mention Rod Stewart. He has inspired singers and music lovers across oceans and generations and is still going strong. I admire those who stand the test of time.

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