"Miss Heather!" the excited preschoolers yelp as soon as they walk out of Our Savior Lutheran Preschool to their awaiting ride.
''Oh, you finally lost that tooth," Heather Walker said as she helps four youngsters from the Bettendorf preschool climb in and get buckled into seatbelts and booster seats. Inside her shiny white van, the conversation quickly turns to favorite cookies — sugar and M&M.
"I like chocolate chip," one child exclaimed.
Then the requests begin to turn volume up and then down on the Junie B. Jones book on CD blaring from the stereo.
It's all in a day's work for Walker, whose new startup Tots2Teens Transport is meeting a growing demand by working parents for child transportation.
"This is more fun than day care because what I'm hearing is the highlights of their day," she said. "I get to hear about the really good parts of their day."
Walker, the mother of two older sons, launched the child transportation service recognizing the dilemma facing busy parents: how to transport a child between school to day care or after-school activities in the middle of the workday.
"Most parents can't leave work," she said, adding that for day care providers, offering transportation creates a whole different set of concerns. "When I did day care, it was a nightmare. You have to pack up all the kids, maybe interrupt a nap or cut snack-time short. Most don't have the ability (to transport children)."
Tots2Teens Transport offers transportation for children ages 3-18, although Walker said the oldest child they transport now is 12. While she is busy picking up and dropping off children between schools, day cares and their homes between 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., "the crunch time" is after school, she said.
"Most of our parents are dropping kids off at school in the mornings themselves, but they are working when school gets out," she said. "We don't take as many to school as we pick up."
At a career crossroads when she was downsized by a national retailer, Walker launched Tots2Teens Transport in March 2015. By last summer, she began serving her first client — a day care provider — transporting the day care children to camp and summer school.
"At the beginning, I was an Uber driver when I had spare time ... it was fun and good practice," Walker said.
Now less than a year later, Tots2Teens has grown significantly with four vans and drivers, and it transports 43 children to 23 locations in Bettendorf, Davenport and Pleasant Valley.
"I was happy she was able to start this and to watch it grow," said Scott Neblung, her business partner/fiancee and now full-time driver. ''She kept saying, 'One of these months, I'm going to ask you to quit (his old job).'"
That day came after they got a third van. Today, they have four vans, including two 15-seat vans, a 12-seat van and a seven-seater. The couple also hired Neblung's 22-year-old daughter, Kelsi Neblung, as a full-time driver and Walker's sister, June Jones, as a part-time driver to fill in on the busy days.
Neblung, who left a retail management job to join Tots2Teens, added that they expected parents to have trust issues about allowing strangers to transport their children. To help them overcome it, he said, they meet with all the parents and, in some cases, the child care provider.
"Having the kids meeting you is the big thing," Walker said. "They don't want to just jump in a car with someone they don't know."
Parents also are provided references and resumes for Tots2Teens drivers and can inspect their fleet of vans.
While they offer to send text messages to the parents or child care provider when a child is picked up or dropped off, Walker said most clients ask for texts only on the first few rides. The Tots2Teens logo is displayed on their vans, which has raised awareness among parents who see them at the schools.
Neblung said his research found about 40 child transportation services nationwide, mostly in major cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta and New York City.
"In Iowa, we're the only one we could find," he said.
Neblung, who has bigger plans about growing the business than Walker envisions, projects they could grow to 10 vans within two years. First, he said they would want to maximize the areas they already pick up and deliver in, but he could see an expansion to Eldridge.
"But you want to grow at a manageable pace," he said.
The couple thought summertime might bring a slowdown, "but we're already getting calls from parents for rides to summer camp, sporting camps and Vacation Bible School,'' he said.