Leah Spruill watched her Spotsylvania County early learning center go up in flames one Sunday afternoon in 2016.

She'd stopped by to stock the refrigerator with groceries, but sensed something was wrong the moment she walked through the door of Always Sonshine Learn and Play at 11919 Rutherford Drive off State Route 3.

"It wasn't even a smell," said Spruill. "Something just didn't feel right. It was just a feel in the air."

She was concerned enough to call the fire department, but firefighters were unable to contain the blaze that had started in the attic. A 40-foot-tall flame shot through the roof and within 15 minutes, the building was destroyed.

Spruill, who'd inherited the business from her mother, was faced with the daunting task of calling parents who'd become like family to let them know they'd have to make other day care arrangements for their children.

"It was like one of those situations that you think could never happen," she said. "I thought, what am I going to do? How am I going to tell the families? It was a rush of emotions."

At the time, Spruill thought she might be able to reopen in six months.

On Monday, when Always Sonshine Learn and Play finally reopened in a new building on the old site, it had been 2 1/2 years.

She said that she drove by the building three months ago and finally decided she was ready, that this was what she was supposed to do, that the jobs she'd held working in other centers and with kindergartners after the fire had given her deeper insights into her field.

"It took a while to get to that point," Spruill said. "Looking back, it all makes sense. I feel stronger than I ever did as a person and an early childhood educator."

For the first six or seven months after the fire, she said that she "hit brick wall after brick wall." She had renter's insurance, but that was no guarantee that she'd have enough to start over. Her landlord also sold the property.

Spruill said that she finally decided life had something else in mind for her, so she got a job as a substitute teacher in Spotsylvania County schools. She worked with kindergartners and first-graders in several dozen different classrooms, which she said opened her eyes to what children need to make the leap from preschool.

She then served as a summer camp volunteer at Stafford Junction, a faith-based nonprofit organization that serves high-needs children, youth and their families. That helped her better understand the needs of families and the community.

And she was reminded of just how much work teachers do when she went on to get a job as a preschool teacher at a licensed day care center, she said.

"Now it's like a passion to make sure they're taken care of," said Spruill.

After a year of teaching, she decided to get back into management and accepted a job as director of another day care center. Then she finally felt ready to take everything she'd learned and reopen Always Sonshine. She also hired Natalia Izaguirre, a bilingual prekindergarten teacher she worked side-by-side with during the period Spruill refers to as her "downfall."

"During those times, the people I met along the way influenced me and pushed me, even when they did not know it. Even when I did not know it," Spruill wrote in an email. "I would have never met her (and so many other people) if the situation on 2/28/2016 would have never happened."

Staff will also include some teachers who worked at the old Always Sonshine, and others, such as Izaguirre, who she met after it burned.

Spruill said that walking through the front door of the day care center's new building with its new layout "was like a breath of fresh air."

"The new layout means new routines, new ways of doing things. It makes me feel that the program is growing from that situation," she said.

She's lined the building's wide center hall with cubbies, and envisions holding yoga classes there for the little ones and a big feast for Thanksgiving. The hall's downside, she said, is that it leaves less space for classrooms than the old building at a time when Virginia has increased the amount of square-footage a licensed day care center must have per child.

As a result, Spruill has had to reduce the number of students she can accept. It was 141 children; now it's 58. She's also downsized the before- and after-school programs from 60 school-age children to 14.

Other changes include tighter security. Families are given a code to punch in a keypad to get in the front door instead of ringing a doorbell, and they sign their child in and out using a finger print. For an extra fee, they can download live feed from security cameras to an app so they can see what the children are doing.

Always Sonshine also provides a digital, daily account of each child's day, although parents still have the option of being handed the written version. The center also has a new website and has upgraded is social media.

"If you're in the childcare field," Spruill said, "you have to learn to change with the times."

She'd hoped to be open by the first day of school in Spotsylvania, but didn't receive the day care license in time. Always Sonshine also participates in Virginia Quality, the state's voluntary quality rating and improvement system.

The center’s home-grown curriculum features a monthly theme and, like it's name implies, stresses learning through play. These include art, crafts, games and other activities. Lunches featuring Chinese or Italian foods, for example, are used as a springboard to teach about those countries.

"We're using that teaching strategy that Head Start uses in Spotsylvania," she said. "We're trying to make it concrete."

As Spruill watched teachers unpack boxes earlier this month so they could get their classrooms ready for opening day, she paused for a moment to reflect how far she'd come since that February day 2 1/2 years ago.

"I realized this is exactly what I want to do," she said firmly, "and fire isn't going to stop me."

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Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407


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