LEXINGTON — If every child under the age of six in Lexington required daycare today, there would be 782 who be left without access. This was the finding of the Communities for Kids initiative and the impetus for a meeting of Dawson County members to talk about the problem.
The childcare planning meeting was organized by Department of Health and Human Services, represented by Shonna Werth, who is in charge of childs care licensing, and Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, Marti Beard the associate vice president of early childhood programs was present.
Dawson County organizations such as Tyson, Orthman Community YMCA, Lexington Regional Health Center, First United Methodist Church, Gothenburg Early Childhood Education Coalition, Learning Adventures daycare, Trinity Lutheran Church, Shining Star Preschool, Lexington Area Chamber of Commerce and Early Learning Academy attended the meeting, as well as daycare providers and other individuals.
“There is a huge need in Lexington,” Werth said, “People need orientation to become a childcare provider and no one in Lexington has done this for a year. I don’t know what families are going to do.”
Werth pointed out all the daycares in Lexington are home based and the average age of these in-home providers is 55. Many are ready to retire and there have been few people who have been interested in starting their own home daycares.
Beard explained the Communities for Kids, C4K, initiative was created in response to community requests for assistance with shortages of high quality early care and education programs. These shortages stand to impact both children’s optimal development and pose a challenge for communities hoping to attract and retain the viable workforces they need to thrive, she said.
C4K aims to partner with communities public and private entities to support and coordinate planning for access to quality child care and education for all children from birth through age eight, Beard said.
Over 70 communities have reached out to be C4K partners so far 17 towns, including Lexington and Gothenburg, have been named partners.
Beard said Lexington was one of the first community partners chosen because of the large number of children who do not have access to child care.
According to C4K findings, there are 970 children under the age of six and their parents both work. There are only 167 licensed child care spots. This leaves 782 children who are not enrolled in a private licensed or public preschool.
This hurts the communities chances of brining in new individuals into the workforce if they cannot find quality childcare for their children, Beard said. When she asked the group if people had turned down job positions because of the lack of child care options, Heidi Revelo, chaplain at Tyson, said there were many who had in the past.
Beard said the testimony of a man from Valentine has stayed with her. He said he had no place to take his children but had to work during the day and, “could only hope they are alive and healthy at the end of the day.” She said this type of worry effects people’s performance at their jobs, as they can only worry about their children’s wellbeing.
As with anything, this problem will not be fixed overnight, Beard said. The community of Red Cloud has been holding meetings for 12 years and just started a large daycare program.
Beard also spoke about the Root in Relationships program, which focuses on the social and emotional health of children from birth up to five years old. This program also provides coaching for childcare providers to ensure they are giving the best and most nurturing care possible. Rooted in Relationships has been present in Lexington for several years and has been well supported by providers, Beard said.
Members of Gothenburg Early Childhood Learning Coalition, Nicole Hetz and Colton Venteicher, were also present at the meeting and spoke about the organization. Venteicher explained how the GECLC was formed from a group of concerned Gothenburg citizens who saw 13 percent of their children not attending preschool.
Casey Madsen, a member of the GECLC, opened Learning Adventures Child Daycare in the First United Methodist Church in Gothenburg and provides quality educational care to 64 children.
Hetz, the Community Coordinator for the GECLC, said it is important to find stakeholders in each community and develop a strategic plan in order to make changes.
“Our goal is for all communities to have a plan,” Hetz said, “It will make us a stronger, healthier community.”
The GECLC members said Gothenburg wants to move the childcare issue forward but they don’t want to “own,” this but think it should be a county wide effort.
The discussion shifted to issues in Lexington which might inhibit high quality childcare. Transportation was a major issue as well as Tyson’s second shift. Werth said almost no licensed provider provides childcare after 8 p.m. which makes it difficult for those parents who work the second shift to find childcare.
Revelo said Tyson loses out on many employees who move to Colorado or Minnesota where there is better child care options.
There is a higher cost to operate daycare centers and those who provide in home daycare are not making much money, Wurth said. Home daycare is financially easier to maintain than child care centers, she added.
A provider caring for more than 12 children must become licensed through DHHS and requires city zoning approval.
Several area churches have expressed interest in trying to find a way to help the issue. Both St. Ann’s Catholic Church and First United Methodist Church in Lexington have been in the initial stages of talking about providing a space for child care.
Madsen, whose child care business is located in a church in Gothenburg, said her biggest hurdle was trying to get the zoning changed by the city, a process which took six months she said.
Churches also have to be brought up to code and meet federal and state guidelines.
The Orthman Community YMCA is also in early talks about providing childcare. CEO of YMCA of the Prairie Riley Gruntorad said they are having a second meeting with Lexington Public Schools discussing moving the empty modular buildings from Sandoz Elementary to the YMCA grounds and providing child care in them. The YMCA’s goal is to provide year round daycare, if possible.
Wurth said there are several ways to build up child care capacity in Lexington, but when there are 700 children who would go without, something needs to be done soon.
Pastor Rob Kuefner with the Trinity Lutheran Church said, “It’s a societal issue, we are under providing for both our children and our elderly.
The group talked about the next possible steps to take and many expressed interest in a county wide survey to gather information and data to better know what to focus on providing.
“We are looking for people who are willing to take this issue head on, who are your heroes in town,” Bead asked, “We need people who will tackle this issue.”
The next meeting to discuss steps forward and new ideas for childcare options will be held Tuesday, July 23 at 10:30 a.m. at the Lexington Community Health and Fitness Center located at 1600 W. 13th St. All are welcome to join the meeting and discuss child care issues.
Correction: Colten Venteicher was misquoted in the article and the aforementioned quote has been removed.