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New Middlebury childcare center in the works

THE REV. ELIZABETH Gleich, left, and Ellen Whelan-Wuest are among members of a Congregational Church of Middlebury committee that’s planning a new community child care facility that will serve 24 infants and toddlers. Independent photo/John Flowers

MIDDLEBURY — Aided by $560,000 in donated seed money, the Congregational Church of Middlebury (MiddUCC) has agreed to establish and host an independent, non-profit child care center providing slots for 24 children ages six weeks to three years old.

MiddUCC is working to open the new center before year’s end, but organizers stressed they still have much work to do — including making physical upgrades to the targeted child care space within the church. So expectant and current parents shouldn’t try to reserve a slot right now; there’s not even a waiting list at this point.

MiddUCC parishioners endorsed the new child care initiative on June 19, which was a deadline the local non-profit group Table 21 had prescribed as a condition for contributing $200,000 toward the effort. The church had already been promised an astounding $360,000 donation from an anonymous, longtime supporter. Organizers said they weren’t at liberty to disclose whether the center’s benefactor is the same donor who seeded Table 21 to the tune of $300,000 in 2020. MiddUCC established Table 21 at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic to help get assistance to cash-strapped farmers and restaurants.

With startup funds now in hand and a green light from church stakeholders, organizers of the child care initiative are laying the foundation for a service that began gathering momentum in March. That’s when the church council agreed to form a committee to explore the potential for opening a child care center in the church building. The resulting “Child Care Exploratory Workgroup,” chaired by Ellen Whelan-Wuest and including the Rev. Elizabeth Gleich, met weekly for several months before drafting a formal pitch of what the child care service might look like.

“We stand in an unbelievably unique position,” Whelan-Wuest said. “The opportunity we have here is not available to so many other individuals and organizations that would like to do this. So it felt very important to us that we take that opportunity to use the resources we could gather to make this program available to the community, because we can.”

Workgroup members had no problem confirming the tremendous need for more child care in Addison County and beyond. They noted statistics from organizations like Let’s Grow Kids, a statewide child advocacy group, indicating that:

  • 8,752 Vermont children ages birth to 5 don’t have access to high-quality, regulated child care spots they need.
  • Of these, 5,000 spots are needed for the youngest children.
  • In Addison County, an additional 452 child care spots are needed to meet the needs of working parents who have children ages 3 and younger.

MiddUCC officials decided to focus on services for that notably underserved six weeks to age three demographic.

Those helming the church’s child care effort noted factors contributing to the industry’s current malaise, including low compensation for educators and the financial barriers low-income households have in accessing the system. Also, taking on the up-to-age-three group will limit the number of children the new center will be able to take in, per Vermont Child Care Licensing Regulations.

The new center will seek to buck those trends thanks to a bounty of seed money, no rent to pay and an ongoing commitment to fundraising as a way to backfill potential budget gaps. This in turn will allow MiddUCC to realize its altruistic aspirations for the center, which won’t have a religious curriculum and will be governed by its own independent board.

Organizers hope the child care service will become self sustaining and take on its own fundraising campaigns within five years.

Gleich and Whelan-Wuest acknowledged most other child care centers weren’t given the same generous head start as the MiddUCC effort, and they pledged the new center won’t unfairly compete with other providers.

“We’re not trying to offer really high salaries that would out-compete on the labor side,” Whelan-Wuest said. “But it was really important that we offer benefits, (and) we’re trying to match what we understand to be comparable, but just, wages (at other centers). We’re also trying to charge rates that are comparable.

“It’s really important to us that the child care ecosystem of our county is stronger,” she added.

STAFF & SPACE

Plans call for several of the 24 child care slots to be reserved for families that qualify for state subsidies, according to Whelan-Wuest. The center will carry six employees, including four educators, one aid and one educator/program director.

Fortunately, the MiddUCC is served by a modern, spacious addition that can be accessed from both Seymour and North Pleasant Streets. Officials are sizing up what it will take to convert three existing classrooms into child care space in the lower level of the addition. One classroom will be reserved to kids six weeks to age one; another will be for one-and two-year-olds; and another for two- and three-year-olds.

Children will also have use of the church’s fellowship hall for group activities.

Construction estimates related to the new center have yet to come in, Whelan-Wuest noted, but the list of improvements includes adding some sinks and carbon monoxide detectors in classrooms, a washer and dryer, and play and learning equipment. Plans also call for erecting an outdoor play space on the Seymour Street side of the building.

“The list is not long, but it’s not cheap,” Whelan-Wuest said.

“If this was an industry that was easy to start up and run, we’d have a lot more child care centers,” Gleich added. “There were moments during our Monday meetings the past three or four months when we said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is an incredibly complicated business…’ But the regulations are there for a reason.”

Church leaders are confident the new center will be able to coexist with existing MiddUCC programs in the building, including weekly community suppers, youth groups, assorted meetings, adult study, an annual holiday bazaar and more.

“It’s not an empty building; it’s in active use,” Whelan-Wuest said.

Organizers have set up an ambitious to-do list for the coming months that includes:

  • Continuing to follow and meet state licensing guidelines.
  • Hiring a program director to begin mapping out a curriculum, apply for state accreditation ratings and create and implement a plan to hire teaching staff.
  • Creating a governance structure to include a board of directors and establish strong and early coordination between the center and the church.
  • Working with the Middlebury’s Developmental Review Board to get the necessary permission to run a child care center in the church building.
  • Submitting grant applications for start-up funding and additional financial support.
  • Beginning the renovation process and establishing a timeline for opening the center.

It’s an ambitious list, but MiddUCC parishioners have grown accustomed to setting — and realizing — big goals for their church and the community. The congregation in 2005 founded the Charter House Coalition, a non-profit, volunteer-based organization dedicated to providing basic food and housing in the Middlebury area. This led to creation of the Charter House Emergency Shelter at 27 North Pleasant St., and the preparation and distribution of thousands of free meals each year to people in need.

“Our congregation is really excited about the opportunity to meet a real need, as we did with Charter House and as we do with the community suppers,” Gleich said. “And now, Monday through Friday, we can meet the needs of 24 children. Sadly, that only puts a small dent into the (overall) need, but that will made a difference for 24 families.”

More information about the new child center case be found at tinyurl.com/d63aeb64.

John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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