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MIdd UCC childcare center moves forward

ELIZABETH GLEICH

MIDDLEBURY — Organizers of a new childcare facility within the Congregational Church of Middlebury have hired a contractor to update the space, are looking to hire staff, and are inviting inquiries from area parents interested in one of the 24 slots for children ages 6 weeks to 3 years old.

The “Red Clover Childcare Center,” as it will be called, will open later this year. The exact date remains in flux, according to Ellen Whelan-Wuest and the Rev. Elizabeth Gleich, two of the driving forces behind the much-needed facility.

The Independent first reported last July that the church, known as MiddUCC, was planning to host a new childcare center catering to the demographic in the most need of such support: infants and toddlers. Let’s Grow Kids, a statewide child advocacy group, has determined that an additional 452 childcare spots are needed to meet the needs of working Addison County parents with children 3 and younger.

Fueling MiddUCC’s effort has been $560,000 in donated seed money, including $200,000 from a local nonprofit group called Table 21 and a staggering $360,000 donation from an anonymous longtime supporter of the church’s community outreach efforts. 

While the Red Clover Childcare Center will be hosted for free at MiddUCC at the corner of Main and North Pleasant streets, it will be independently run and won’t have a religious curriculum.

“This is not meant to be a church childcare center; it’s a childcare center within the church,” Whelan-Wuest said during a recent Zoom interview that included Gleich.

Anyone interested in becoming a Red Clover client or a member of the planned 11-person board, or in donating to the effort, should check out tinyurl.com/vnnufn66.

Meanwhile, Brandon builder Naylor & Breen has been completing renovations to the church building to make sure it’s compliant with Vermont childcare licensing regulations, according to MiddUCC officials. Given the scope of the work and the lack of available contractors, center organizers feel fortunate to have landed Naylor & Breen, which began the job on Jan. 9.

“The nature of the work … is it was not too big and not too small; it was right in the middle,” Whelan-Wuest said. “It made it a hard job for a lot of local contractors to be able to spot into their schedule.”

Landing a contractor felt like “more than a small miracle,” Gleich said.

The biggest tasks involve installing sinks in the three future center classrooms and transforming an unused elevator shaft and stairwell within the church building into a laundry room for the church and Red Clover to use.

Naylor & Breen is expected to complete the interior portions of the project by the second week in February, officials said.

“They’ve been amazing to work with,” Whelan-Wuest said of the contractor.

Not all the work is indoors. Plans call for a storage shed to be installed behind the church and creation of an outdoor play area for kids, encircled by a fence. Gleich and Whelan-Wuest gave their thanks to the nearby St. Stephen’s Church for contributing money toward the fence.

Let’s Grow Kids has also provided a $50,000 grant toward the center start-up effort.

A couple of the Red Clover board’s first major tasks will be to secure state licensure for the facility and hire its first executive director, who will help map out the center’s program and assist in hiring staff. The board’s other chores will include getting insurance, going through a site-review process with town planners, creating a website, and finalizing a shared-use agreement with the church to coordinate schedules for the two organizations.

“We’re hoping by the spring there will be a process and a timeline for parents to apply and to open our doors to start taking care of kids,” Whelan-Wuest said.

Vermont and other states continue to deal with a shallow labor pool, but center organizers said they’re hoping to overcome that by offering a livable wage and benefits.

“We know it’s a competitive market, and childcare centers are competing with the school district with paraprofessionals and teachers,” Gleich said. “They are understandably leaving (local childcare centers) because the school districts can offer better benefits and pay — which they deserve, but childcare centers can’t afford. We’re doing our best to build up funds so we can pay our workers fairly.”

With that in mind, organizers continue to welcome contributions for Red Clover.

“We’re still very much looking to build up funds to not only do the capital improvements that we need to make, but also to sustain (the center),” Gleich said. “We will be subsidizing our operations (in part) through our fundraising — which all childcare centers do, to some degree.”

While a spring opening for Red Clover is still possible, it’s still too early for parents to reserve a slot.

“We want to have a thoughtful process in how we decide to do that,” Gleich said.

So interested parents are being invited to sign up for Red Clover updates through the tinyurl.com/vnnufn66 — which will eventually include news on when to apply.

John Flowers is at [email protected].

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