The last year has proven exactly how strong Ashley Williams is.
The 32-year-old fought — and beat — breast cancer, all while following her dreams and opening her own business, a child care center.
Creative Learners Child Development Center opened its doors July 18 at 711 Dorsey St. in Gainesville. To Williams, Creative Learners’ owner and director, it’s a familiar place; she worked at the same location as a pre-kindergarten teacher for eight years when it was under different ownership and a different name.
“I used to work here as a pre-K teacher and the company that we worked for closed down out of the blue and it left a lot of kids and parents with nowhere to go in this community,” Williams said.
Williams said the day she learned she was being laid off is the day she decided to try to open a child care center. It was the perfect opportunity for her to combine her passion for children and education with her love for the community.
“Everybody knew that I had a dream to open a child care center,” Williams said of her former co-workers and family, who persuaded her by saying the child care center’s closure must have been God’s way of telling her to chase her dreams.
Williams started making plans to reopen the center under her ownership. She spent her savings in the effort and ran into a few bumps financially. Eventually, someone she refers to as a “guardian angel” stepped in with a donation to help pay the center’s rent and to make her goal a reality.
Williams felt passionately about reopening a child care center in the same location she used to work because of its benefit to the area. A lot of parents would walk to the center because they don’t have reliable transportation.
She also has been re-employing several others who used to work at the center, and several other teachers that she would like to hire back are waiting once enrollment increases.
“It was mainly to help the community, help people find jobs, (and provide) a positive place for kids to go,” she said.
All the while, Williams continued to aggressively fight her cancer. The day she was laid off, she also went for chemotherapy treatments and received a blood transfusion.
Williams journey with cancer began in January 2015 when she went in for an annual checkup and the doctor found a lump in her left breast. She was initially told not to worry about it, that it was most likely a fibroid, but it continued to grow.
After some urging from her family, Williams went to the doctor. When a mammogram showed irregular results, doctors did a biopsy which revealed that she had stage 2B breast cancer.
“I went through chemo, lost my hair, lost my eyebrows and that was the hardest part for me,” Williams said. “Anybody will tell you I love my hair but in the end, sitting up there doing chemo and I thought ‘OK, Ashley you lost your hair, a lot of people go through chemo every day, almost all day and they will never get off chemo,’ so then I was like, ‘You know what, it’s just hair, it will grow back.’”
In all, Williams went through 16 rounds of chemo, 33 rounds of radiation, three surgeries and one blood transfusion.
On Dec. 23, she received some good news — her doctor called and said they biopsy done during surgery showed everything was benign.
“It was a rough road to be in, becoming cancer-free, but I made it through that and then radiation was over with in March, and that was pretty rough, but through it all I’m still here smiling,” she said.
In addition to starting a business and battling cancer, Williams is also a student at Brenau University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education with a minor in business.
It’s taken a lot for Williams to get where she is today. She says she couldn’t have done it without the help of her family and the community.
“I have the best community that anyone could ever ask for,” she said. “They rallied around me through cancer and getting this open. I have to give them credit, they were a big part of it.”
Williams now puts in long days at the center as an administrator. She said she misses working directly with children so she will visit class rooms and help with the kids when she can.
Creative Learners Child Development Center is open from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Child care is available for children ages six weeks to 12 years.
“I love watching the kids grow, seeing them come when they’re babies and then after three years they come to pre-K to me,” the former pre-K teacher said. “Then after that they come to after school (care), so just watching them grow and seeing them learn, and being excited about learning.”
Day care is available for children ages six weeks to 4 years old and after-school care is available for children ages 4 to 12 years old.
The child care center is still working with the state to try to get a pre-K program.
“We try to keep them knowing what world is all about, even though they’re young they’re at the age where the catch everything,” Williams said.
The teachers at the school all have degrees related to education and are CPR and first aid certified, Williams said.
Her mother, Judith Williams, who also worked at the building under the previous owners, works with the infants at the center now.
She said she’s always encouraged Ashley to follow her dreams.
“Do what you love, I think that’s a good thing,” she said.
While Ashley Williams has faced struggles over the past year, she said going through cancer has made her stronger. She admits to having moments where she cries, but in the end she considers herself a “pretty tough cookie.”
“When people see me, they see me smile, they see me give positive words, but when I’m by myself I am a baby,” she said. “Just going through cancer made me stronger and knowing that you have to keep fighting. The fact that I made it through cancer shows that I have a purpose here for something,”