After 30 years, Jody Zastera is ready to not wake up to an alarm clock.
Zastera - known by many as "Ms. Z" - has been setting three alarms every morning to ensure she wakes up at 4:25 a.m.
"I need to be at the school by 6 a.m., so I have three types of alarms to make sure I get here for the kids," Zastera said. "I don't know what it will be like to not have to set an alarm. But I bet I'll wake up anyway."
Zastera plans to retire from Kids and Co. School Age Child Care in Two Harbors on April 19. Zastera started the program in 1989 as an after-school program.
"We were a program for kids who couldn't be home alone, so they were a 'latchkey kid,'" Zastera said. "But the kids didn't like that name, 'latchkey,' so they came up with the name 'Kids and Co.' And the 'Kids' (letters) were (all) capitalized because they needed to be more important, while the 'Co.' didn't need to be because it stood for the adults and they weren't as important."
Zastera grew up in Two Harbors and was the daughter of a well-known drugstore owner. She went to the University of Minnesota Duluth for elementary education then spent two years teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in Nebraska. Zastera then moved to Germany and taught with the U.S. Department of Defense until 1989, when she moved back to Two Harbors and started the after-school program.
"I started out with three children," Zastera said. "It was just an after-school program then. We'd be there for kids who needed a place to go until their parents could pick them up."
After running the program for several years out of John A. Johnson Elementary, Zastera expanded the program to Minnehaha Elementary. Then, the North Shore School pulled her in to help start a program there, as did Silver Bay at the Mary Mac Mall.
"I used to travel up and down the shore to do their paperwork on the weekends," Zastera said.
Meanwhile, the home program expanded to full-day preschool, as well as service during holiday breaks, especially during the summer.
Zastera has fond memories from her summer programs from over the years. She'd organize field trips on the North Shore to various state parks, bowling and pizza days in Duluth and trips to the zoo. Whenever the kids would go out on a field trip, they'd have to wear their matching T-shirts to ensure they were easily recognized.
"Several years ago, we'd even take overnight trips to the Cities," Zastera said. "We'd fill a school bus, the last six or eight rows filled with bags and coolers. We'd sleep in a church overnight and go around to visit museums and seeing plays and going to Twins games."
Although the program mostly stays close to home now, Zastera keeps her fond memories and her collection of many colored shirts with her name printed on them.
In her 30 years, Zastera has seen her fair share of changes. The North Shore School and Silver Bay programs broke off from hers along the way. She's seen the rise of cellphones and social media, even among her young students. One of her favorite developments was in the early days when the program first began using portable radios.
"Before, at the John A. , if we had kids on the playground, we'd have someone run back to collect them if their parents came," Zastera said. "Then I was at a conference where someone was talking about portable radios ... Oh! what a difference! Now we use them all the time so we can contact everyone."
What is Zastera going to miss the most?
"The hugs and smiles; I get so many a day," Zastera said. "I'm going to miss a lot of other things. But the hugs and smiles everyday, especially."
Zastera said she's been known as "Ms. Z" for so long, she even has it on her license plate.
"I couldn't get 'MSZ' because someone had already taken that one, but I am 'MSZEE,'" Zastera said. "It's been who I am for so long."
Zastera's co-workers Carla Endicott and Bobbi Salakka are planning a farewell party and open house from 4-6 p.m. April 12 at Minnehaha Elementary. To prepare for the party, the pair are asking for anyone with photos from Kids and Co., as well as letters and cards, to drop them off at the Minnehaha office or Two Harbors High School office.
"We'd like to make a big collection of cards and photos to give to Ms. Z," Salakka said. "She's got a pretty good binder of graduation photos and whatnot, but we'd like to see more photos and just add to her collection."