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Grassroots movement seeks solution in Mount Vernon, Lisbon child care desert

This story was originally published in The Gazette.

When the day care center Jessie Thurn relied on to take care of her daughter Ari closed last summer, she was lucky enough to have family close “if push came to shove” and she needed child care.

Thurn was luckier still that a friend put her in touch with an in-home child care provider who happened to have an opening.

Thurn and her husband both work for small businesses, which means there’s no one at work to cover for them if child care falls through and they have to stay home with their children, she said.

“It’s really impactful when you can’t make it to work. Having a grandparent or someone you can rely on who is willing to help out is critical for us,” Thurn said.

Not all families have the resources in Mount Vernon and Lisbon — which have been labeled child care deserts — that Thurn has, she said. That’s why the League of Women Voters in partnership with the Iowa Women’s Foundation has been leading a grassroots movement to find child care solutions in the area.

Collaboration key to finding a solution

Deann Cook, president and CEO of the Iowa Women’s Foundation, said inadequate child care contributes to barriers for women, including self-sufficiency, housing insecurity, transportation, further education and training and employment.

The Iowa Women’s Foundation funds and supports research, and educates policymakers and community leaders on issues and solutions to help women and girls have equal opportunities for success.

Solutions require “communities recognizing there is a challenge with securing enough child care in the community and coming together from all walks of life — parents, schools, employers, city and county policymakers — to find solutions that work. One of those groups can’t solve it alone,” Cook said.

The Foundation is currently working in 56 communities, 49 counties and 130 businesses in Iowa on child care solutions, Cook said.

This includes the League of Women Voters in Mount Vernon, a group that is “a powerhouse of child care champions,” said Sheri Penney, employment engagement director with the Iowa Women’s Foundation.

Many families ‘piecemeal’ child care

Colette Nakielski, who lives in Mount Vernon, joined the League of Women Voters to help be a part of finding child care solutions. The solutions being explored include helping residents open in-home child care centers, opening a child care center in Mount Vernon and partnering with local businesses to help mitigate some of the costs of child care and increase wages for child care employees.

Part of creating solutions is changing the narrative of child care providers who are sometimes seen as “babysitters,” Nakielski said. “They are business owners and people to be respected for what they do. It’s hugely important and our society forgets how much learning happens in those early years.”

Nakielski’s husband is a professor at Cornell College in Mount Vernon. She works as an administrative assistant at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Anamosa. Nakielski works from home part-time and in the office a few mornings a week with her 1-year-old daughter Charlotte by her side.

Her son Finnegan, 5, is in kindergarten at Washington Elementary School in Mount Vernon and her other daughter Evelyn, 3, goes to preschool at St. Patrick School in Anamosa.

Many families like hers have found ways to “piecemeal” child care for their children between school, part-time day care and family, Nakielski said.

“If people do have family in the area, they are being used” to help with child care, Nakielski said. “That’s not the role a lot of grandparents want to take, but they do because they’re needed.”

The closest child care centers are the Lisbon Early Childhood Center, which is part of the Lisbon Community School District, and Spartan Early Childhood Center in Solon, which is about 10 miles from Mount Vernon. Spartan opened in November 2019.

Shawn Rife, owner of Spartan Early Childhood Center, said there is a “huge need” for child care in the area. Spartan, which opened in November 2019, serves 55 children zero to 5 years old. It has a yearlong waiting list, Rife said.

Lisbon Early Childhood Center is licensed for up to 187 kids and has a waiting list for age groups infants to 4-year-olds. “We receive inquiries weekly,” director Bre Ties said in an email to The Gazette.

One of the challenges of maintaining its operations is staffing. Ties said the center is “always hiring part time staff members” and currently needs early morning and late afternoon employees. “The challenge is finding employees in a rural area with the availability that meets the needs of the center,” Ties said.

Mount Vernon Community School District Superintendent Greg Batenhorst said in a “perfect world” the district would be able to develop a program similar to the Lisbon Early Childhood Center.

“We have tried to pursue a few grants to make this happen, but have not been successful,” Batenhorst said in an email to The Gazette.

The school district is working with city leaders like Mount Vernon Mayor Tom Wieseler to brainstorm ways the district can help develop a viable child care facility, Batenhorst said.

Wieseler said the school district is several years away from pursuing a building project after completing new performing arts and athletic centers as a part of a $12.8 million general obligation bond approved by voters in 2018.

A new bond issue will not be able to be raised until the current bond is paid off in 2026.

"Mount Vernon community leadership recognizes we have a challenge to offer quality, affordable child care to young working families currently,“ Wieseler said. ”This won't get solved quickly but we are having active, aggressive dialogue with the right players being at the table. This is not a new issue, but is becoming an increasingly important issue.“

‘We’ll be successful’

Later this month, Child Care Resource and Referral is hosting an information session for people who are interested in opening an in-home center, one solution to the child care crisis the League is trying to pursue, Nakielski said. Those interested will get support from Child Care Resource and Referral and the League to help prepare their homes to be licensed for child care, she said.

Currently, there are only two in-home registered child care providers in Mount Vernon and Lisbon and some non-registered homes providing care, said Rachael Bonefas with Child Care Resource & Referral of Southeast Iowa.

Bonefas said she has attended a community meeting and has spoken with the mayor of Mount Vernon about requirements and logistics of opening a child care center. This week, she is walking through a possible child care space.

“I am here to support child care programs from inception throughout their business life,” Bonefas said in an email to The Gazette.

Jane Carlson, who lives in Mount Vernon and is a member of the League of Women Voters, said while there are a lot of “stumbling blocks,” she is dedicated to the mission of finding child care solutions.

“We’re determined not to let it die,” she said. “We’re enthusiastic we’ll be successful.”