(Kelly Sikkema | Unsplash)
In late 2017, business leaders in Black River Falls started talking among themselves about how a lack of child care was causing absenteeism among their employees who were parents, even forcing some to drop out of the workforce.
They formed the Jackson County Childcare Network. The group initially consisted of business leaders, then expanded to incorporate representatives from school districts, local and county government, the county’s biggest employers, the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association (WECA) and the Wisconsin Department of Families and Children (DCF). In collaboration with the 7 Rivers Alliance, they conducted a survey that confirmed Jackson County was a child care desert, with some parents on waiting lists for more than two years to get their children into a child care slot.
The lack of child care was costing the county $2.5 million a year in lost productivity according to Marianne Torkelson, chair of the Jackson County Childcare Network,
In a panel with child care advocates on Tuesday, Torkelson described how her organization formed and the work participants have been doing to recruit and retain child care providers. Last year, DCF reported the organization’s child care recruitment and retention efforts had led to three new providers opening in Jackson County.
The pandemic brought into stark relief the need for child care, an industry that had struggled with high costs and low wages for years pre-pandemic. Federal and state funds offer some relief to providers and families, but those funds are scheduled to phase out by the end of 2023.
This week, WECA launched a new initiative and website — RaisingWisconsin.org — to provide research, resources and recommended first steps for employers, community leaders, parents and child care providers who want to organize and advocate for long-term child care solutions for their community.
“We have seen increasing numbers of state organizations, economic leaders, parents, and community leaders who recognize the critical importance of high quality and affordable child care for healthy children and a healthy Wisconsin economy,” said Ruth Schmidt, WECA’s executive director, at a press conference Monday.
Raising Wisconsin seeks to encourage those groups and interests to collaborate more broadly on ways to expand the availability of child care and advocate for policies that will ensure that care is both high quality and affordable. “We envision Raising Wisconsin as an impactful vehicle that combines advocacy with experiences from across the state to build a future where all young children are able to thrive,” she said.
Bringing a variety of local groups together has led to some creative solutions. In Jackson County, a partnership with the local Future Farmers of America chapter has created a program where high school students work with early childhood educators to teach about gardening, farming, food and health. It was prompted, Torkelson said, when she ran into one of the FFA advisors while shopping.
“The reason that we’ve been successful is because of the relationships that we have within our community,” Torkelson says. “We all go to church together. We go to the ball games together, we see each other at their grocery store, and we’re a community that comes together and really believes in doing what’s right for our children.”
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Sometimes, all it takes is one well-funded entity to make a difference. In 2014 in Polk County, the Amery School District learned through a community survey that enrollment was declining because parents were moving away after they could not find child care in town. The district decided to invest its community fund to create a “diapers-to-diploma” child care system, as the district’s child care director, Nina Hutton described it.
“The community, I know, was probably a little skeptical at first about having child care in their district,” Hutton says. “But the community has really embraced this idea that making sure our families are all taken care of and their needs are met is everyone’s responsibility.”
The Amery program has a nine-month to one-year waiting list, so through a referendum and partnerships, the district is working with the community to expand child care even further. One of the up-sides of the pandemic is that business leaders in particular no longer need convincing because they have now seen first-hand how child care access affects the economy.
“Even if you are retired, don’t have a child in school or in early childcare, you don’t have factory workers, you don’t have someone bagging your groceries at the store, you may not have [certified nursing assistant] care at the local nursing home if you don’t have quality care for children,” Hutton says. “Everything’s interconnected here.”
Until state and federal legislators decide to invest in long-term child care solutions, those connections and relationships will have to grow and sustain the industry. WECA’s hope is that Raising Wisconsin will be a platform for forming and growing those connections and for Wisconsinites to tell their stories.
“At this critical moment, it allows all of us — employers to economic leaders, early childhood professionals, community leaders, and parents — to lift up our voices together,” Schmidt says.
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