By Sydney Melson
The Birmingham Times
Huggs and Kisses is more than just the name of a day care for sick children that pediatrician Jacqueline Stewart opened in 1990—it has become a lifeline for many families.
“I was seeing parents who were concerned about having to balance work and parenting, particularly when their children would be sick and they’d have to take time off from work,” said Stewart, a pediatrics specialist who has been practicing for more than 40 years. “Parents would say, ‘If my child has one more ear infection, I could lose my job, I could lose my promotion, I have to use my vacation time.’ I started Huggs and Kisses as a result of that.”
The two g’s in Huggs is to make the name of the daycare unique like some of the services provided.
In addition to giving scholarships to those children whose parents can’t afford the tuition for day care, Stewart realized that there was more to do. After seeing parents with special-needs children, she expanded her services at the day care on 5th Avenue North in downtown Birmingham and established another program—Mission Hugs.
“Oftentimes, [the children] didn’t have facilities that would take care of them before they were school-aged,” Stewart said. “If they had issues with feeding tubes, were on oxygen, were dealing with seizure disorders and other chronic illnesses, the parents [often] did not have outlets for the children.”
Mission Hugs steps in to meet the needs of those families with limited funds and those children who need extra equipment and medicine.
“We’ve had situations for which we’ve bought special equipment [or] paid rent for parents who have found themselves in [challenging] financial situations,” Stewart added. “Oftentimes, those parents have to take off work to take those kids to special clinics or to the hospital, so their finances can suffer.”
Stewart, 73, was raised in Edgewater, Alabama, where her life was filled with joy and purpose.
“My parents were wonderful,” she said. “My dad worked [in the steel industry], and my mother was a homemaker. They were determined to educate their children, so we were encouraged to pursue any type of education we wanted.
“I wanted to be a pediatrician because I love children and was drawn toward them. It was a lifelong ambition that I was able to achieve. My spiritual calling is healing, and my specific calling is to take care of the children of the world—and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 41 years.”
In her youth, Stewart doted on children in her community.
“I thought my baby brother, [who is 13 years younger], was the only baby in the world. He was so sweet. He was the center of my life and still is. As I grew up, I would go through the community babysitting for everyone,” said Stewart, who also had an older brother, who is now deceased.
She attended and graduated from the now-closed Westfield High School in Fairfield, Alabama. She continued her education at Tuskegee University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology with a chemistry minor. After graduating from Tuskegee in 1969, she got married and had her son, Maurice.
Stewart, who has been married to second husband George W. for 29 years, said her faith and family have strengthened her through several challenges.
“I’m a breast cancer survivor, and I was fortunate enough to go through 16 treatments without missing a day of work. I’ve also had a heart attack,” she said. “My faith has kept me going because I believe God has a purpose for me, and I believe I’m serving out that purpose.”
That purpose meant continuing to grow in the profession she loves. While working in a laboratory as a medical technologist at the now-defunct Lloyd Noland Hospital in Fairfield, Stewart enrolled in medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and graduated with her Doctor of Medicine degree in 1973.
Being a pediatrician is what makes her life complete.
“One of the things that makes me happy is those who have come through my practice who are now doctors because of their exposure to my practice and other areas of health care,” Stewart said. “I’m also into my third generation of some families. It has been gratifying to see children grow up and become parents, and then see their children become parents. … The fact that I can follow the families and be part of their lives is wonderful to me.”
Care in a COVID World
As with everything around the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruptions for Huggs and Kisses. In 2020, not many people needed sick day care services because the pandemic meant more parents could work from home.
“Some years we’ve had as many as 25 families, some years as few as 10. But we’ve always had families,” Stewart said. “Right now, we have twins: one has special needs, and the other is fine. … The mom would have had to take the kids to two different day cares, so we took both [children] to make it easier on the mother.”
Mission Hugs typically holds fundraising events each year, but things have been different in 2020. Still, with the help of Women Under Construction, a Birmingham-based nonprofit that helps women learn how to use tools to fix their homes and lives, Mission Hugs raised enough to keep providing much-needed services.
Stewart, who also serves as president of the National Association of Sick Child Daycare, said very few cities offer resources like Huggs and Kisses or Mission Hugs.
“That has been one thing that has kept us going,” she said. “Having an alternative for parents who need to work, having an alternative for kids who can’t get the services otherwise is a real blessing.”
Want to learn more about Huggs and Kisses? Follow on Facebook, visit www.huggsandkissessickchildcare.com, or call 205-32-Huggs (205-324-8447).