Jessica Hardy has worked at the Pearl Griffin Memorial Latch Key Program for 22 years — the past 18 years as director — and Hardy knows the after-school daycare makes a difference in the families it serves.

Latch Key, as it’s commonly called, provides free daycare from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. each weekday to families served by the Brownwood school district. Latch Key, which is housed in the education wing of First Christian Church at 2411 Coggin, is for children from ages 4 and in pre-kindergarten through grade 6.

Latch Key is intended for lower income families who qualify for free and reduced lunch with the school district.

Brownwood school buses drop children off at Latch Key after school ends, and a staff of 11 Howard Payne University work-study students guide the children through two hours of activities that include outdoor playtime, arts and crafts, homework and snacks.

Latch Key is a totally local program that depends on grants, the United Way and fundraisers for its existence, Hardy said. Seventy-two children are currently enrolled, and the program is licensed by the state for 85 children.

Latch Key also includes a Cub Scout pack and a Girl Scout troop.

“I love my job,” Hardy said. "I can’t imagine working anywhere else. To see the difference that we make in the kids’ lives and as much help as we are to the parents, it makes a difference in my life.”

Hardy said she doesn’t know of another job that would match what she gets out of working at Latch Key.

Emailed statements from several parents back up Hardy’s statements:

“Latch Key has been a blessing to me for more than seven years. Each teacher and staff my two children and I have come in contact with have been a blessing. They genuinely care and love your kids like they are their own. It is not just a place your kids go after school. It's a safe place. A place where I don't have to worry about my children. A place my children love to go. I will forever be grateful for Latch Key!” — Rachel Lopez

“Latch Key has been an extreme blessing to our family. Not only does our daughter love going, I also enjoy going each day just to see the friendly smile or to hear a friendly hello from Miss Jessica and Miss Maci. You'd be surprised how a simple smile or hello could affect someone's day. Thank you Latch Key.” — Eilaura Smith-Ortega

“What Latch Key means to me is a second home for my children where I know they will be loved and taken care of by a wonderful group of people in a safe environment.” — J. Ben Williams

“Latch Key is important to my family because it's a safe and friendly environment and we love the staff.” — Elizabeth Martinez

Latch Key began in 1983. The name is an acknowledgment of the children who went home after school wearing house keys around their necks, because no one was home when they arrived, Hardy said.

“They were the latch key kids,” Hardy said. “Those are the families that we try to help — the ones that are working and trying to better their families and just really can’t afford child care.”

Hardy first worked at Latch Key as a 16-year-old high school student. “My mom had always been in child care,” Hardy said. “She either worked in the schools or she worked in day care so that kind of pushed me in that direction. I was not good at it at first.”

During her junior and senior years at HPU, where Hardy earned a degree in business administration and management, Hardy worked as the assistant director. The Latch Key director was moving away as Hardy graduated from HPU in 2001, and Hardy became the director.

An 11-member board oversees Latch Key including board vice president Hailey Smith, who has served on the board for four years.

Smith said she’d been praying about how to give back to the community.

“I was a single parent for 12 years and wasn’t aware of the program,” Smith said. She hoped to serve on a board that would enable her to help children.

Then-board president Dr. Tom Byrd called Smith, told her about Latch Key and asked her to consider serving.

Smith described Latch Key as “a safe place for our kids to go to where they know they’re loved.”

HPU senior elementary education major Maci Dorsey is the Latch Key assistant director. Working at Latch Key is “right up my alley,” Dorsey said.

“Coming to work is fun, and I enjoy it so much,” Dorsey said. “It’s a great environment. There is never a day of thinking ‘I don’t want to go to work.’ It’s not really work.”

Dorsey said it will be a bittersweet time when she graduates from HPU, since it will mean leaving Latch Key. “I’m not ready,” Dorsey said.

Another Latch Key staff member, Destiny Ramirez, said via email, “I absolutely love the smiling faces on children when they come to Latch Key. I also favor what Latch Key stands for and how many families are getting affected positively through the love Latch Key gives all families.”

Latch Key staff member Madisynn Thames said she likes “the relationships you build with the children. We see them every day and we see their good days and their bad days. My favorite thing about Latch Key is being able to show love to the kids and be a constant in their lives.”