Fruitless search for child-care spot for son leads to thriving business for couple
After struggling to find a child-care centre for their three-year-old son, Mostafa Heikal and Noura Elbeial took a chance and invested in their own.
"We decided to invest in child care because there was a huge need," said Heikal, who worked with his wife to launch Angels Childcare in 2019.
"We didn't find a spot for my son for a few months," he said.
Little did the couple know, their business would fast become a solution for other families struggling to access child care outside larger urban centres with limited spaces.
Since starting the centre at a former United Church in Arva, a small community just north of London, Angels Childcare has opened three more locations in Komoka, Sarnia and Thorndale.
Today, it offers 250 child-care spots and has more than 70 full-time staff across Middlesex and Lambton counties.
“When we first started, it was really amazing because it was a new organization, so we really got to shape Angels into the place we would have wanted to work with educators,” said Jessica Colley, the administrative co-ordinator.
“Now that’s happening,” she said.
Angels Childcare was recently honoured by Community Futures Ontario, a government-funded program promoting rural economic development, for its work across the region.
The business was awarded the entrepreneur of the year award, one of three handed out this year.
"I was so happy to be nominated. That means people see your work, your impact, which is great," Heikal said.
Being nominated by Community Futures Middlesex was extra meaningful because the local organization took a chance on the business idea – offering financial support – when many others rejected it, he said.
“They did support us to create this first location, and they also supported us moving forward when we shut down" during the pandemic.
Regulated childcare is especially hard to find in remote and smaller communities – many have no child-care facilities at all, noted Felisha Foreman, the operations co-ordinator at Angels Childcare.
"In Dorchester, which is a growing community, they are just getting a child-care centre right now," said Foreman, who lives in Thorndale nearby.
The demand alone tells the story.
"Our centres are full," said Colley, adding there are very few spaces to offer families with kids not yet enrolled at the Komoka location.
In Sarnia, the largest centre, the waitlist for a child-care space is more than 1,000.
"Many families think, 'Oh, I'm going to need childcare in September. I'll get on the list in July.' We have families who have been on the list for two years (so) they take priority," Colley said.
Growing the business didn't come easy for Heikal, who is from Egypt and moved to London with his family in 2016. He was using a wheelchair and recovering from a car crash when he was starting out.
He previously worked different jobs – from food sampling to Uber driving and alarm systems sales – and went through the steps to become a mortgage broker, but his options were limited due to his restricted mobility.
Then, after landing on the child-care idea, he came across an advertisement online to rent the Arva United Church.
"We found this church on kijiji," Heikal said with a chuckle during an interview in the building, its stained-glass windows and church organ still intact.
A graduate of the United Kingdom's London School of Economics, he drew on his business experience to reinvent the once-hallowed space into a vibrant centre.
“We had to fix all of this. It's a lot of work,” Heikal explained, pointing to the electrical work and offices that used to house a stage.
Reflecting on the last four years, Heikal said it's rewarding to see his efforts paid off.
“I’m happy that my wife is proud to see what we achieved,” he said.
“Until we opened (the Thorndale location) she was telling me, 'You're crazy.' It was very tough for her. So I think that that's a very important point for me.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada
Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press