If anyone knows that the best ideas are often borne out of dark times, it’s Kristin Perry.
Back in 2007, Perry was a single mom in her mid-20s with an infant son named Sammy, living in a tiny studio apartment at Seventh and Girard, laboring to get by with weekend bartending jobs in Northern Liberties, and generally angry and frustrated by her lot in life.
Still, she was determined to care for Sammy her way—keeping him in cloth instead of disposable diapers, making all of his baby food with organic vegetables and fruits from local farms, refusing to use bleach on his sheets, and surrounding him with creativity. A visual artist embedded in Philly’s indie music and arts scene, Perry reached out to her like-minded friends in the community to look after her son while she worked her late-night shifts at the 700 Club.
“I was worried—if I’m going to leave my son with somebody, who would I want him around? I would want him around somebody like me,” she says.
Perry soon ditched the bartending work to become a nanny, looking after kids whose parents were involved in the city’s arts community. That’s when the idea hit. “There should be a cool childcare agency for artists and people who live an alternative lifestyle like we do,” she recalls thinking at the time. And so she founded just such an agency: ChARTer Nannies.
Nearly five years later, and with three partners, Perry, 31, oversees a growing national operation that specializes in matching creatively minded nannies in Philly and elsewhere around the country with artist-parents who travel regularly—musicians out on tour, authors doing book tours, actors on far-flung sets, etc.—and who need to hire someone to look after their kids full-time out on the road with them. Among ChARTer Nannies’ client list: The Flaming Lips, Sheryl Crow, the Strokes, Band of Horses and the creators of the hit Nickelodeon show Yo Gabba Gabba!, which spun off an equally popular touring concert production.
It wasn’t easy getting from Point A to Point B. Perry, who moved here from her native upstate New York 10 years ago after graduating from SUNY-Albany with a psychology degree, had solid childcare credentials—she’s either babysat or nannied kids since she was 11 years old, and has done tons of volunteer and paid work with special-needs children. But finances were tight. For three years, she struggled to get the agency up and running, shuffling through company names, websites and business plans. “I knew a lot of people who needed the service and friends who needed the work, but I was just having a tough time raising my son alone and working full-time as a nanny and trying to start a business. It wasn’t happening.”
Then, in 2010, a friend introduced her to Julia Knapp, who’s not only the head of wardrobe for Yo Gabba Gabba! but also serves as travel nanny for Mates of State, the Connecticut indie-pop duo that’s become known as much for their blog about touring with two young daughters in tow as their music. Knapp told Perry that Mates singer-keyboardist Kori Gardner and one of the band’s former nannies, Erin Abbott, had been thinking about starting a similar agency. Knapp suggested they all get together.
“I was thinking that Erin and Kori were probably, like, ‘Who is this girl with our idea? We must meet her and destroy her!” Perry laughs. Instead, Perry’s business plan was enthusiastically received and the four ladies partnered up at the end of 2010. “Once we joined forces it went from me being totally overwhelmed to this amazing, supportive group of empowered, awesome women,” she says.
While there’s no shortage of nanny agencies in Philly, or local nannies advertising on Craigslist, ChARTer Nannies fills an important niche for the city’s creative community, especially since over the past several years, more and more bands coming out of Philly’s vibrant music scene have become viable national touring acts, and more and more of those bandmembers are becoming parents. And that’s on top of classical musicians and other artists around the city who are away from home for long stretches of time.
Given the nature of the work, Perry—who serves as the agency’s point person for prospective nannies—says the screening process is both rigorous and unique. “It’s pretty rare you’ll find nannies like ours at other agencies, and not everybody’s cut out to be a ChARTer Nanny,” she says. “Obviously, sometimes you get the ‘Oh, I wanna go on tour with a band!’ and it’s like, ‘Well, actually there’s also this thing about a child you need to take care of …’ But aside from getting references and doing background checks I ask them things like if they’re artists themselves, if they’re vegetarian or vegan—since most of our clients are—and if they’re familiar with alternative education methods like Montessori or Waldorf, since that’s also important to a lot of our clients.”
Perry notes that business has slowly increased mostly through word of mouth. And with their roster of nannies expanding, the agency is more able to provide services to Philadelphians who might not be traveling musicians but still need a nanny well-versed in alternative lifestyles to look after their kids during a vacation or on a longer-term basis.
“I don’t think people feel comfortable just hiring the neighbor kid anymore, or someone who doesn’t get you or what you want for your kids,” says Perry. “This all started because I got so much support for Sammy and myself from my own community, so I want our company to feel like a community.”