When Paula Keller moved to Jacksonville from New Jersey in 2003, she and her husband started the inevitable task of hunting for someone trustworthy and dependable to babysit their son, 3, and daughter, 9.
Keller, whose husband is an attorney, is a stay-at-home mom who writes in her spare time. Between soccer mom duties and everything else that accompanies raising a family, she has a lot on her plate. A sitter is a necessity in her household, even more so because she does not have any family nearby to help out.
Keller used neighborhood teens to babysit, but after several last-minute cancellations, she called a business recommended by a friend, Rent-A-Nanny, known then as Rent-A-Granny.
Hesitant at first that a "granny" would not be able to provide her children with the type of attention they needed at their ages, she was soon proven wrong. "I liked the homey feeling," Keller said about her beginning experiences with babysitters from Rent-A-Nanny.
How it began
Founded by Penny Meeks who operates the business from her Jacksonville Beach home, Rent-A-Nanny is a free referral and booking service for people needing a nanny, babysitter or caregiver. The ages of the nannies range from 19 to 67, and Meeks does not accept anyone who has not been in college for at least two years.
All employees must pass an in-person interview that includes reference checks as well as a national criminal background check, which Meeks provides for free to those seeking nannies.
"It [the company] is very, very reliable," Keller said, who has used nearly 40 babysitters from Rent-A-Nanny, all of whom she said were dependable and almost never showed up late unless they got lost. Meeks even showed up a few times to babysit when Keller had a last-minute need for someone.
Meeks started the business in 1997 when her oldest daughter was going through the same struggle as Keller – looking for someone whom she could trust to leave with her child. Meek's daughter did not feel comfortable trusting just anyone with her young son.
It was while Meeks was lounging on the beach, her favorite place, contemplating her daughter's dilemma that she came up with the nanny service idea. "I've always been an entrepreneur, and I was ready for a new challenge," she said.
As a mother of three whose children are grown now, Meeks knew how hard it is to find good help. "I bond with mothers and nannies because I've been on both sides, and I know how it was when I had my three children even finding temporary care for after school," Meeks said.
After some planning and an advertisement, word of Meek's new business began spreading. As the demand grew, she left her job at J.C. Penney Co. to manage Rent-A-Nanny full time. In 2005, Donna Powell, the best friend of Meek's daughter, joined the team as a branch owner.
Growth and accolades
In 2009, Rent-A-Nanny was selected for the Best of Business Award in the maid services, contract or fee basis category by the national Small Business Commerce Association.
Rent-A-Nanny provides service for families throughout Northeast Florida, including Nassau County. Meeks divided Jacksonville with Powell when she came on board. Meeks currently manages 80 nannies around the Beaches, Northside and Arlington areas of Jacksonville, and Powell manages 30 nannies around areas like Mandarin, Orange Park and St. Augustine. The business serves a core of about 400 families as clients. The way the business works is that every two weeks, each nanny sends 20 percent of the money she earned per hour worked to Meeks. The rates, which Keller says are reasonable compared to other nanny agencies, are $12 an hour for one child, $13 for two, and so on.
Although with the economic recession there has been a slight downturn in families going out and needing nannies, overall Meeks said the company is still doing well. The nannies too are doing well, according to nanny Elise Perkins.
Perkins, who has been with Rent-A-Nanny since 2003 and has babysat for Keller for three years, said it "helped save her financially." She said there are fewer jobs during the summer, but during spring and fall near the holidays she makes from $600 to $800.
Meeks wants people to know that particularly during these hard times, they don't have to pay for the service of having a nanny provided for them; they can call up and have a nanny available within the hour. "In tough economic times, it's a matter of getting the word out," she said.