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Goodness, wrapped in dough 

Hot Pockets founder serves up a pioneering child care idea, with funding

Munching lamb and guacamole chips, the crowd at Cheyenne Mountain Country Club watches as David Merage approaches the podium and yanks the mic down to his level. It's an unlikely setting to talk revolution, given the prestige, comfortable wealth and age (one older gentleman, apparently weak from standing, actually collapsed during the meeting) of most participants.

But on this recent Wednesday afternoon, Merage is pushing the kind of change that gradually alters the way we think — in this case, how we think about teaching and caring for the country's young children. Along with his wife, artist Laura Merage, he believes he's found a way to make America a leader in education. No kidding.

"We think that early child care and education just does not belong to one group," he says to the potential sponsors. "Who is going to be the next Einstein? That's not our choice. That's not our decision."

The plan is simple: Create Web-based networks of small, independently owned, licensed day care facilities, and you automatically increase the knowledge of care providers, increase their buying power, and decrease the time and money they spend on tasks like taxes and payroll.

His plan, Merage Early Learning Ventures, is being hatched through Colorado Springs' Child Nursery Centers, which has 20 home-care providers. Fueled mostly by an undetermined fraction of Merage's fortune, that number will expand to 100, serving 800 kids, in the next three years.

It comes just as new Army families are moving here from Fort Hood, Texas.

"Our soldiers are arriving now," says Diane Price, president and chief executive officer of Child Nursery Centers, "and [planned] child-care centers on base have not been built or completed yet."

That's one of the reasons Merage chose Colorado Springs for a pilot program (another being in Arapahoe County). He envisions other communities adopting similar systems, bringing more standards to early child care, and providing better learning environments to children at the time their brains are growing rapidly. He says we always talk about standards for K-through-12, but ignore ages birth-through-5, when education can have the biggest impact. And according to the Children's Foundation, the U.S. had 407,519 licensed or regulated child-care programs in 2004 — plenty of territory to conquer.

Education wasn't always Merage's business. After growing up in Iran and being educated in England and America, Merage worked in real estate, and refined and marketed retractable dog leashes. His big success came when he and his brother Paul created a cheesy microwave concoction. Hot Pockets, along with the Chef America brand and serious pop-culture notoriety, sold to Nestlé in 2002 for a cool $2.6 billion.

From there, David and Laura founded the Merage Foundation — a charity dedicated to Israel, Jewish life, art and community, and early childhood education.

"We really have so many passions," Laura says. "We didn't think we could give up any of these."

Lately, launching Early Learning Ventures has been a top priority. Child Nursery Centers has hired two new staff members to administer the program, and is seeking licensed or soon-to-be-licensed home providers to join their network.

Price believes the program could provide not only better care for kids, but also employment to local entrepreneurs.

stanley@csindy.com

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