In 2018, the Iowa Women’s Foundation is focusing efforts on supporting communities looking to expand affordable, accessible child care options for both rural and urban Iowans through strategic partnerships. A special thank you to Emily Bodholdt and Ready, Set, Grow! for sharing their story with us.
The Journey of Ready, Set, Grow!
by Emily Bodholdt, President of the Board for Ready, Set, GROW!
On Tuesday, September 14, 2010, parents in the Storm Lake community were notified that their child care center, Gingerbread House, would be closing forever in only three short days. After receiving word of its closing, parents of approximately 150+ children were scrambling to find child care before returning to work on Monday morning. When Gingerbread closed, it was due to financial reasons. Although it served a very large number of children, both young and school age, it was not able to succeed as a business. At the time, I had two young children. To this day, I remember those feelings of uncertainly and desperation as I unsuccessfully called provider after provider searching for child care. A passion was sparked in me for high quality, affordable, dependable child care as a result of that experience.
Over the next four years, my husband and I had two more children, completing our family of two boys and two girls. Unfortunately, we did not have much luck with in-home providers. As a result of providers moving away, closing their business, or asking us to find alternative care due to our part-time status, my children had attended three different in-home child care providers in four years. I work full-time as a nurse working three 12-hour shifts a week, so although I work full-time, child care is only needed two or three days a week. The inconsistency of care was difficult for not only the kids, but also stressful on our family as each year we would yet again struggle to find an opening for child care in an already saturated child care market. The demand for child care was just too great for the supply of child care providers in our area. After Gingerbread House closed, there was only one other child care center in Buena Vista County, and it was a 20 minute drive north of Storm Lake to Sioux Rapids. In 2014, the city of Storm Lake had an approximate population of 11,000 people, and no child care center. Something needed to change!
In February 2014, Early Childhood Iowa hosted a forum open to the public in Storm Lake to address the need for child care in the community. I attended this meeting because I desperately wanted more child care options for our community. Following that initial meeting, a steering committee was formed by myself and an in-home provider in the area who also wanted to see a change in our community. We recruited friends and colleagues to join us on a steering committee. Over the next several months, a dream evolved. The steering committee dreamt of a child care center serving the children and families of Buena Vista County. We looked into our options, and decided that the best way for a child care center to be successful in our area would be to form a partnership with a local business, church, or school. In order to meet the child care needs of our area, it was necessary to think outside the box to develop a solution that would allow for a child care center that would be both affordable for our working families, as well as reliable and financially sustainable.
The first challenge of the steering committee was finding a location for a child care center. The former Gingerbread House had been sold to the local community action agency for the use of preschool classrooms, Head Start, and Early Head Start, so that was no longer an option. With no funds, the committee started by meeting with local church leaders, real estate agents, and school superintendents. We discovered that real estate purchases would be out of our budget and simply not feasible. Churches were a consideration, however, many of them would need extensive modifications to meet child care needs. The Storm Lake school district did not have the room for a center, as it was full to the brim and even having to turn away preschool candidates due to a lack of classroom space. Finally, we discussed our plans with the superintendent of the Alta-Aurelia school district. Alta is a neighboring town six miles west of Storm Lake. Mr. Lynn Evans had been a part of initiating a child care center at the school he had previously been superintendent, and he recognized the importance of quality child care in his school district.
Ready, Set, GROW (RSG) child care center is located in the former high school building located in downtown Alta. Currently, the high school and elementary schools are located in a newly constructed building on the south side of town, the middle school is in Aurelia, and the preschool classrooms and RSG are in the former high school building downtown. So essentially, the downtown location is an ideal early childhood center. The Alta school location is ideal for several reasons: Preschool children are welcome to attend RSG before and after school as needed. For after school care, preschool teachers are able to merely walk the children down the hall to RSG. The child care center contracts with the school district for the noon meal. The school allows us to lease classrooms for $1/year. RSG is able to purchase cleaning supplies and paper supplies through the school district. The preschool classrooms and RSG share the gym to allow for exercise. The school upkeeps the building, as well as takes care of the utilities, garbage service, snow removal, and lawn care. Where otherwise the former school building may stand empty and not used, we have breathed new life into the old building while creating a valuable service to the community!
The city of Alta also has been very supportive of RSG. At the beginning of this journey, the steering committee chose to be a nonprofit organization, however, the IRS application fee to apply for not-for-profit status is $800. I attended an Alta City Council meeting to inform them of our intentions, and the City of Alta graciously paid our application fee. We were fortunate to also have the support of a couple local attorneys who volunteered their services to assist us with legal paperwork, such as Articles of Incorporation and our bylaws.
Over the course of the next couple of years, the steering committee continued to work towards opening a child care center in Alta. The steering committee turned into a Board of Directors, and Policies and Procedures were written. The fire marshal visited several times, as well as our regional DHS licensing personnel to ensure that we had a safe place for children to come for child care. We could not have done this without the assistance of Early Childhood Iowa and Child Care Resource & Referral. Annette Koster (ECI) and Retta Mitchell (CCR&R) were there for guidance and support throughout this process. We held fundraisers, approached local businesses for support, and applied for grants to fund our child care center.
RSG was opened and equipped merely by the generous gifts of financial donations and grants, and by the hard work of our board of directors. We did not utilize any financing to open our center. We made this a priority in order to maximize our chances of being financially successful, especially after the downfall of Gingerbread House. RSG opened the toddler room in September 2016 (almost exactly six years after Gingerbread House closed), and the infant room opened in November 2016. Currently at this time, we serve 37 children total at the Alta center. We occupy two classrooms in Alta—an infant room and a toddler room. RSG is full and our waiting list continues to grow each day, and requests have been made for a summer program for school-aged children. We are excited to expand our Alta location this summer to meet this need! The preschool classrooms will be moving to the new addition at the main school building, and RSG has been given permission by Mr. Evans to expand our center and utilize the vacated preschool classrooms as needed.
We are also excited to pursue our next adventure in meeting the needs of child care in our community. In the spirit of continuing to think outside the box, we will be partnering with Methodist Manor, a local nursing home, located along the shores of Storm Lake to finally bring a child care center back to the city of Storm Lake. Methodist Manor is in the process of constructing a new facility, and will be vacating the current resident halls. We will bring RSG to one of the vacated halls of the nursing home after some remodeling to accommodate for child care. At this time, we are working on our fundraising efforts so that, once again, we can open our center without the need for financing. The partnership with Methodist Manor will be similar to that with the Alta school—we will contract for meals, utilities, etc. The Methodist Manor site will have four classrooms for child care. Once again, we hope to utilize a space for child care that may have otherwise been left empty or abandoned.
I believe all children deserve a safe, caring place to go and all families deserve affordable, reliable child care for their loved ones. Our journey has been several years in the making, and it has been full of stressors and set-backs, but the positive stories from families and staff make it all worthwhile! I personally believe that the key to success for child care centers in our rural Iowa communities is partnering with a local school, church, or business. It is very difficult for a child care center to make ends meet when the center is on its own and still be affordable for working families. Rather, I feel that it is vital to success to partner with another entity who could benefit from child care services. The Alta school values the social, developmental, and educational growth the children experience while attending RSG. The child care center provides a good, strong foundation for those children when entering school. Methodist Manor sees the importance of having child care on-site for employees, as well as the joy it will bring to the older residents who will be regularly interacting with the children. Child care is a service to the community, and it benefits not only the children it serves—it benefits all!