Marrying child care and the Secret Service
Wife’s Milestones Child Development Center sparks idea for husband’s Secure Education Consultants firm.
Child care center owner Kelly Squires met her husband Jason Russell at the gym when he was her personal trainer in 2006. She said he dropped the worst pick-up line she ever heard: “I work for the Secret Service.”
“There’s no Secret Service in Grand Rapids!” she said with a laugh. In fact, four local Secret Service agents protected the president, vice president and international dignitaries when they came to town. Jason Russell was one of them from 2002-10, while also working as a trainer.
The couple married in 2008 and developed what some might call an unusual business synergy.
Kelly Russell opened Milestones Child Development Center in Cascade Township a year prior to meeting her husband.
After they met, she asked him to come to Milestones, which enrolls children from six weeks to age 12, to create child ID cards and to fingerprint as many as 90 students at the center’s first location at 5070 Cascade Road SE.
Jason Russell, who studied criminal justice at Western Michigan University and took his job at the Secret Service for its protective aspects, was happy to help. He ended up assisting his wife in drawing up an emergency preparedness plan for Milestones.
“As I started to look at what child care providers were doing for emergency preparedness, I saw there was no security expertise helping out in that child care/pre-kindergarten world at all,” he said.
The itch to help other educators danger-proof their schools never left him. After they had been married two years, Jason Russell decided to leave his job at the Secret Service, which required a lot of travel, to stay closer to home.
He started Secure Education Consultants (SEC) in late 2012. The firm specializes in “presidential-level” security response plans and employee training; all seven consultants are former management-level Secret Service agents. Jason Russell said he is able to attract and retain high-profile consultants, because they all have children and care about the mission.
His first paying client was Kelly Russell and her initial Milestones center, which moved to 4533 Cascade Road SE in 2013, and the other two locations she later opened at 8270 Broadmoor Ave. SE in Caledonia and at 2370 Belmont Center Drive in Belmont.
“Basically, my business grew out of hers,” Jason Russell said.
Milestones will open a fourth location at 8101 Moorsbridge Road in Portage in August. When the new center is complete, Milestones will have 250 employees caring for more than 1,500 West Michigan children.
Kelly Russell, who studied special education at WMU, said security is just one more thing that makes parents feel drawn to her child care center.
“Our biggest compliment we get from our enrolled families is it’s got a home feel when you walk in, even though they’re large centers,” she said. “We’re also known for our natural playgrounds, getting the kids back in nature instead of having commercial equipment. We do fallen trees and logs, tires, stepping stones and grass.”
“We’re both in the business of protection,” Jason Russell said. “While our backgrounds are so different, our businesses are incredibly complementary.”
SEC, at 4527 Cascade Road SE in the same parking lot as Milestones’ current Cascade location, now serves 150 clients in 35 states. Jason Russell has expanded his client roster to include corporations, churches, school systems, nonprofits, women’s shelters, doctors’ offices and more.
The SEC procedure mirrors the company’s initials: site assessment, emergency preparedness plan and critical incident training.
“The process could work for any organization,” he said. “We never deviate from (it), and it’s really the process every organization should follow when they’re putting their safety plan into place.”
Most of SEC’s clients maintain an ongoing relationship with the business through re-certification of employees year after year.
Kelly Russell said it is impossible to put a price tag on the peace of mind that SEC training and safety features bring.
“My employees have said that they feel really empowered after a training with SEC, like when they go to the theater or other places, they are more aware of surroundings,” she said. “We put the staff through active-shooter training. It’s enlightening to see the reactions of staff, to see whether they have fight or flight responses to danger.”
Jason Russell said the training includes “practical things, like how to position yourself if someone is trying to attack. What are the processes your brain goes through so you can be faster?”
SEC records all training sessions with GoPro cameras, so employees can watch themselves later and adjust their responses.
The couple said their business relationship helps keep them close and grounded.
“I’ve been lucky that Kelly had already run a business,” Jason Russell said. “It was the perfect setup because she was a mentor, as well as my target client. She is a focus group who lives in my house. It’s been hugely helpful to have her available when I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“We are a good team,” Kelly Russell said. “As an entrepreneur, you tend to live and breathe your business a lot. If we know we are having a super-busy week and are starting to see each other’s stresses, we can really talk through what’s happening.
“Jason is starting to go through some of the same growing pains I went through a decade ago. I can reassure him that everything will be fine and that this is all a natural part of the process. I can be a sounding board for him.”
Jason Russell plans to keep expanding SEC. He is in the initial phase of working with Holland-based GMB Architecture + Engineering and Rockford Construction on a project called Security Engineered Construction.
The idea is to build security features and training plans into a building at the front end rather than trying to retrofit, as is often the case for SEC.
“The new center (Kelly is) building in Portage is being built with our SEC process. It will have high-end, covert security features, and the teachers will be trained to a higher level than before,” Jason Russell said. “Eventually, I think that’s the way all buildings will be designed.
“I believe every child care and school should have someone with security expertise involved in their design-build process.”