By Hortense Massamba
When Sudanese-born Obi Widad arrived in the United States in July 2000, she had no idea that one day she would open a daycare center in Portland, Maine – but she has! Her business, Sunshine Daycare, opened in October 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic. She said she believes she is the first Sudanese resident of Maine to open a daycare center.
Her route to Maine, and to Sunshine Daycare, was circuitous. After leaving Sudan she traveled to Egypt, and from there to Texas, where she lived for nine months, and then she went to South Dakota, where she lived for two years. She and her family arrived in Maine in October 2003, at the urging of her uncle, who is a deacon at Portland’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
As is the case for so many immigrants, when she arrived in Maine she had trouble finding a good job. She worked as a housekeeper at Maine Medical Center for two years. Then she moved to the labor and delivery center in maternity care, where her task was preparing the delivery room before delivery and arranging it again afterward. She was the first Black African woman to work in that department,
and held the position from 2006 to 2019. Next, she worked as a companion caregiver to the elderly, providing support, assistance, and companionship, a position she still fills on weekends.
When the pandemic hit, Widad realized that managing her work schedule and also taking care of her children would be difficult, and decided to revisit her long-standing interest in working with children. Widad comes from a family of nine children, and she is the eldest, and since childhood she has always loved working with children. Before the pandemic, she occasionally helped her relatives and friends by babysitting their children, and she volunteered to teach Sunday School classes. When she realized she could no longer help her relatives and friends, and also couldn’t drop her own children off at daycare anymore, she decided the time had come to open a daycare of her own.
A friend advised Widad to research the requirements for opening a daycare, which she did by going first to Portland City Hall. She filled out an application, then pursued online training for two months. After earning a certificate, the authorities inspected the anticipated site of the daycare. They tested the water and the fire detection system. She was fingerprinted for a background check, and finally there was a hearing to be sure the neighbors accepted the idea of having a daycare in the area.
Although Widad was licenced to care for 12 children, because of the pandemic, she decided to have only six. The daycare is open from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays, and accepts children from six weeks to 12 years old.
Widad is careful to observe pandemic protocols. In the morning, when the parents arrive with the children, they must wear a mask. This is also true for children who currently are ages five and older. At the entrance, everyone must sanitize their hands, and all are required to respect social distancing. Widad provides snacks and water, but parents send meals with the children. The area for diapering is carefully monitored.
Keeping the children distanced is difficult, Widad said. They like to play together, so she has formed three age groups and places the children six feet apart. Each child has individual art supplies and other materials, and at the end of the day she disinfects the room and all materials.
Widad is a determined woman who does not believe in harping on difficulties. One day she would like to expand from a home daycare to a big center outside her home. She is also investigating becoming a foster parent.
“Immigrants have a bright future in Maine, and there are opportunities for everyone,” she said. “You just have to ask!”
Sunshine Daycare is located at 10 Roy Avenue, Westbrook, Maine 04092. Obi Widad can be reached at (207) 887-9344.