Our new series invites you to the homes and neighborhoods of notable North Forkers. This week, Jennifer LaMaina, owner of Bright and Early Discoveries child care center, talks about supporting families and children in Riverhead—and the support she’s gotten in return.
“I’ve been in Riverhead for about six years now, and this Soundview Meadow neighborhood for about a year and a half. My husband, Marc, grew up in Greenport and we met in the city. He decided that he would leave his job to open up a cupcake shop in Greenport, and I decided to follow him here. It’s so much better in terms of the air, the space, the slowness. It’s so beautiful and scenic—it even smells different! Even just the ride from the Hampton Jitney to the city is so calming compared to how I used to travel on the subway.
It was a lot of adapting compared to city life, but I love it and I wouldn’t change anything about it. I’ve brought my family here as well: My mother and my sister both live in our home with us. I grew up as one of six and we were always on top of each other. I have three boys, seven, six and 15 months. And once I had my youngest son, we were so busy and my mom came here to help us out. We’re always supportive in the Haitian community—part of our culture is we look for ways to help any way that we can. Both my parents are Haitian, so it really means a lot to me. I love the food; I love the culture; I speak Creole. And I really want my children to experience that culture.
“It’s so much better in terms of the air, the space, the slowness. It’s so beautiful and scenic—it even smells different!”
I’m a licensed social worker and in the city I worked for child protective services and as director of a skilled nursing facility. I have a passion for working with elderly and children—giving a little bit of yourself to help someone else and be a voice for them. My sister is studying early childhood education, and she came originally in 2016 to help me open a group family daycare. We fixed up a house on Union Avenue by the aquarium. We would take the children for a walk down to the river and put out a little picnic blankets and have our snack. I love the uniqueness of downtown Riverhead; the homes are built so strong and have a lot of character. I’ve been part of the Business Improvement District and met people that were born and raised here, and they’re invested in the community and trying to make it an exciting place for people to raise their families.
Immediately we had a wait list because of the need in the community. So since 2018, we’ve expanded to a daycare center. In the child care business, you will get families from all over and as diverse as Riverhead is, you see people that work at the hospital, people that have their own businesses, people work in restaurants, people that make wine. And I really enjoy meeting all these families and working with their children. You become part of their family. And that’s the best part about it, especially in this community. Everyone is so connected.
When we were looking for a new house, I was expecting my third son and we wanted a bigger place that had our children’s bedrooms on the same floor as ours. Something that gave them enough running space and that was on a safe street. This neighborhood is all cul de sacs and it’s awesome. I don’t have to worry about cars racing by, and everyone is cautious when they drive. And everyone waves—I’ve never seen that before! When I’m in Riverhead or even just the North Fork period, it’s all so friendly. If I’m dropping off an Easter basket to one of my students and I had never been in that neighborhood, everyone’s waving.
My husband’s restaurant, Lucharitos, is in Greenport, Aquebogue and Center Moriches now, so Riverhead is nice and central. And we love the Riverhead schools, so we didn’t look anywhere else. It’s family, and that’s so important to me. Even now, my son’s kindergarten teacher is active, always asking, ‘How do you feel with everything that’s going on?’ It’s not just focused on my child, it’s focused on the family.
Our enrollment at the daycare center declined due to Covid, but we are still open and have been every day. We are operating for the essential workers: The hospital is nearby, and we have a lot of families that run restaurants and small businesses. When we were first mandated to wear masks, the children were asking so many questions. Why do you have that on, why is it that color? We had to help the children understand the constant hand washing. That’s something that we practice all the time in child care, but it was highlighted even more. ‘Do not put your hands in your mouth.’ ‘Don’t touch your face.’ It really puts stress on the children. You could see it. And we then started to receive older children who would normally have been in school; we have teachers with degrees in education so we were able to give to the community by assisting with virtual learning when families had challenges. We tried to keep activities the same so that it gave the children some normalcy, so they wouldn’t be so thrown off.
The community definitely came together. I’ve never seen so much support in one community in my life. I say to myself, had I been in the city, would it have looked the same? And I don’t think so, because I feel like people are so connected here and you see the outpouring, collecting to give to the high school graduates or essential workers. It really shows that we are one, you know? It’s pretty inspiring.”