HURON, S.D. — Since their son, Tate was born four years ago, finding quality, stable childcare has been an on-going challenge for Loni and Travis Brown.
When Tate was a newborn, Loni, who had been working as a Building Specialist at Cammack Ranch Supply in Union Center, quit her job and began working in the infant room at a Sturgis daycare center so she could remain his primary caregiver.
Soon however, Loni knew she needed to find a job that provided the family with healthcare benefits. The daycare didn’t offer benefits and benefits through Travis’ employer, at that time, were too expensive.
When she began working for Black Hills Credit Union, Loni found an in-home daycare for Tate. “In-home care just seemed like an overall better environment for him. It was more personal and hands-on. It was also a more calm environment because there were only 10 kids versus the center’s 70,” she explains.
Then, about the time she went on maternity leave with their daughter, Maysa, their childcare provider notified the families she cared for that she would be closing her business.
Loni and Travis reconsidered the daycare center, but now that they had two children, the $1,000-a-month price tag didn’t fit their family budget. So, she and a co-worker teamed up to pay for a nanny.
Then, the nanny took a different job.
At this point, Loni’s co-worker’s husband decided to modify his work schedule and work weekends, so he could stay at home during the week with their two children as well as the Brown’s two children.
“He’s been watching them for about a month now and so far it’s going well,” Loni explains. “There are very few people who I genuinely trust to watch my children and I trust him.”
Unfortunately, the challenges the Browns face when it comes to childcare are not unique. Finding quality, affordable childcare is a challenge for many South Dakota parents, explains Shelby Bergeson, Early Childhood Specialist for The Right Turn Inc., a nonprofit organization which as part of their mission, provides training and technical assistance to state licensed daycare providers.
“Even here in Pierre, it can be difficult to find childcare. And, because of the ratio of children to childcare providers, it can be especially difficult, in smaller communities like Gregory or Burke, where there simply are not many childcare options,” Bergeson explains.
Statewide childcare is enough of an issue, that childcare became part of the policy discussion during the 2016 South Dakota Farmers Union State Convention.
The topic was introduced by Tammy Basel, a Union Center rancher and grandmother of four.
“Protecting our youth is vitally important. As off-farm income and insurance benefits become essential to maintaining many family farms and ranches, most often one parent, and sometimes both, need off-farm/ranch work. Childcare for farm and ranch kids is necessary today,” explains Basel, who became aware of the issue when her granddaughter Lily was born.
Lily’s mom, CJ, works about 16 miles from the ranch, for Cammack Ranch Supply. After she missed days of work when various babysitters quit, Lily’s aunt, Shilo LaMont, stepped in and offered to watch her along with her three children, who are now school age.
“There are no daycare options around here. This not only impacts farm and ranch families but if you are a rural business who needs employees, childcare becomes an issue that not only impacts families, but employers. It becomes a community issue,” Basel says.
Solving the childcare challenge together
Acknowledging the need for quality childcare and its importance to attracting professionals to live and work in a community, in some rural areas, business leaders have teamed up to develop creative solutions.
This is the case in Tulare, the rural community where Roxanne and Eric Knock returned after receiving their post graduate educations. Roxanne works as a staff nutritionist for Dakotaland Feeds and Eric is a veterinarian and partner at Prairie View Veterinary Clinics.
The couple has four young children, Rylee, 8; RaeAnna, 6; Rielle, 3; and Roy, 1 – and very demanding schedules. They rely on the Tulare Daycare to care for their children when they are working.
The nonprofit is run by the Tulare Development Corporation in a building the Development Corporation owns and maintains. It is led by a parent and community board of directors.
“Our community recognizes the importance of childcare,” explains Roxanne. “Without this daycare, finding childcare would be chaotic.”
She explains that outside of Tulare, the closest daycare would be 30 miles away. “It’s nice to know that while we are working, our kids are playing with their cousins and neighbors.”
Roxanne currently serves on the board. She appreciates the value the Tulare Daycare placed on parental input and involvement- as does daycare supervisor and director Kaylee Cole.
“The parents are great. I can’t image my life without working with these kids and getting to know their families,” says Cole.
Parent and community buy-in are essential factors when it comes to adapting creative, community-based solutions to childcare, explains Erin Huntimer.
Huntimer works for Basin Electric Power Cooperative as the Project Coordinations Representative. Her daily duties recently included helping the North Dakota-based cooperative open a childcare center in rural Mercer County.
When she first took on the task, Huntimer trusted the cooperative business model to help meet the growing need among their employees for local, quality and affordable childcare.
“It was my natural instinct to turn to the cooperative business model that has been used so extensively to help fill the needs of underserved areas,” explains the mom of two; Vander, 4, and KayLee, 10.
Reaching out to the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives was among her first steps. Turns out the organization had actually tried to open a daycare in another community, but community buy-in wasn’t what it needed to be.
“The good news here was that we had buy-in, we just did not know how,” Huntimer says.
She explains that before picking up the phone to call the association, Basin Electric reached out to other local employers to see if their employees were expressing similar childcare challenges. These seven businesses utilized feedback gathered by a survey conducted by Mercer County Economic Development, of community members and parents to determine if the idea of a daycare cooperative would appeal to them or not.
“When you’re faced with a problem and you don’t know the solution, one of the best things you can do is talk about it,” she says.
A year after leaders from the seven companies sat down with Basin Electric to visit, Energy Capital Cooperative Childcare opened its doors.
Listening to the needs of parents in the community, the daycare center is open extended hours, features a large outdoor space, does not rely on TV to entertain children and offers childcare/payment options that fit parents’ work schedules whether their needs are drop-in, part-time, shift or full-time.
The center is housed in an old church building that community members helped renovate to fit the needs of the daycare. Located on an expansive lawn, a fence was donated by Coyote Station, a founding partner in the project, so children can safely spend time outdoors.
“My kids are outside playing most days when I pick them up. Having plenty of time to play outside was important to many parents,” explains Laura Dronen, a Process Engineering Supervisor for Basin Electric subsidiary Dakota Gasification Company.
Dronen and her husband, Jon, who is also employed with Basin Electric, have two young children, Caitlin, 7, and Dillon, 5. Their childcare story is similar to the Browns. By the time Dillon was 4, they’d had two in-home providers close their doors and an au pair/nanny change careers. The childcare instability nearly ended with Dronen quitting her job to stay home with her children.
In her case, timing was everything. “I was talking with my manager one day and told him, that things were getting to the point where I think I am going to have to quit because there is no one to watch our children. He said, ‘slow down a minute here, let’s see if we can come up with something.'”
This was the conversation which led to bringing Huntimer on board to see what options were possible to help address the childcare issue for Basin Electric employees, as well as the employees of area businesses.
The Dronens were among a group of parents who helped renovate the church and were actively involved in providing feedback. Today, their children are among more than 50 who enjoy spending time at Energy Capital Cooperative Childcare while their parents work in banks, hospitals, nursing homes and for Basin Electric in Mercer County.
“Don’t underestimate the value of rural electric and telephone cooperatives when it comes to solving issues which impact rural communities,” Huntimer says.
— Lura Roti, for S.D. Farmers Union
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