Small Town, Big Dreams: New C4K Team Envisions Thriving Children and Families
A young woman of about eighteen makes a decision. That decision is to leave the small town where she grew up. The decision is to move to a city, a big one or a small one, one whose skyline is crowded with skyscrapers, and whose skies are filled with neon lights.
Maybe she’s accepted a job offer. Maybe she’s attending college. Maybe she’s moving in with a friend. Whatever the story is, you’ve probably seen it before. Popular culture is full of tales of a young person who travels from her small town to a larger urban area.
But what about those who stay or return? Beyond Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz, many young families move back to small towns, places that they love, where they’re presented with unique assets and challenges.
For Rachel Woollen, her story of moving back to a small town boasts a happy ending, a new beginning, and a familiar concern for young families. Quality care and education is difficult enough to find, to the point where families can expect to pay a college-tuition-sized portion of their income and sometimes remain on a wait list for years.
As an advocate for quality education and new neighbors, Rachel and her cohort would love to see another center in their area so that new families could enjoy peace-of-mind and the many comforts of small-town living.
“I’ve always thought Wilcox-Hildreth is a small, tight-knit town,” said Rachel. “We WANT people to move here, we get excited when there are new kids in our kids’ classes! Wouldn’t people want to move here if they knew about early childhood programs here rather than being 30-40 minutes away?”
Rachel and her fellow C4K members, who have dubbed themselves Cultivating Kids, envision their community’s new opportunity manifesting as a quality childcare center. As of now, Rachel is the only provider in the area.
Rachel’s story is even more textured than that. She is the proud mother of quadruplets, now 12 years old, an advocate for early childhood programs, and one of the new C4K Cultivating Kids core members.
As someone who loves living in the Wilcox-Hildreth area, Rachel said she wishes for more young families to move to the area with a quality childcare center to boot.
Luckily for Rachel and her quads, when she first moved to town, she knew the teacher who worked with her children.
“It was a no brainer,” said Rachel about her children’s first teacher. “She helped my kids from the time they were little.”
Communities for Kids is one of Nebraska Children and Families Foundation’s Early Childhood initiatives. The program has currently grown to include many different Nebraska communities, all of them with a mission that mirrors our own: to support families, providers, and children in creating the best early childhood care and programs that we can – and it takes a community to do this.
Since we believe there is power in numbers and in creating positive change through community engagement, there are other C4K team members along with Rachel to lead the charge. But since no childcare center was built in a day, the team must begin from scratch and get a feel for what the community needs.
Filling the Void and Cultivating Kids: Wilcox-Hildreth’s C4K Team is Born
Kelly Simmons and Julie Tarr, both C4K core team members, have hit the ground running. Julie is the new coordinator who has worked alongside Kelly, who has spearheaded the team.
Currently, Julie said before the team creates a quality center, they must first obtain a better idea of what their families need. The team has sent out a survey; within a few weeks, Cultivating Kids will have answers.
As someone who is not a resident of the area, Kelly has worked at the schools and observed secondhand how a lack of quality care has impacted her colleagues.
“I’m not a resident [of Wilcox-Hildreth,]” said Kelly. “But I take ownership of helping the community. We come together when there’s a void,” she said.
When asked how families fill the void of childcare, Julie said that often families rely on the kindness and the time of relatives.
Although having grandparents is a joy and a convenience, during the pandemic, there are health risks and questions: how can families find quality care while worrying less about an added health risk? And what about those families whose relatives don’t live in the area?
Julie said the pending survey results will give them insight.
Kelly, like Rachel, has observed the pros and cons of childcare and small-town versus city-life.
“In a bigger community, there are more options,” said Kelly. For Kelly, however, bigger doesn’t equal better but instead presents its own unique challenges.
“I’ve been exposed to a small-town lack of childcare and a bigger community, where there are lots of options – but you don’t always know that person,” said Kelly.
As someone who works closely with the town’s teachers, Kelly continues to devote herself to creating an awareness of the importance of early care.
“The teachers are younger,” Kelly said. “They have young kids. I look at their struggles and I wonder, would that hinder a young family from moving here?”
Kelly said on occasion, some families will opt out of moving to the Wilcox-Hildreth area because they need to commute to drop their children off.
When the pandemic hit earlier in the spring, Kelly witnessed another difficulty. Teachers grappled with moving their courses online while the lack of childcare further compounded the problem.
Kelly said that teachers with young children would log in to ZOOM and teach their courses, often while trying to care for their toddlers.
And the scarcity of childcare goes beyond impacting education professionals. “I’ve talked to business owners on my C4K team; they’ve lost employees as a result of not finding childcare,” said Kelly.
Moving forward, the next steps include dreams and a reality:
“Our team would love to see a childcare provider partner with a community member and begin a center,” said Kelly. “Our C4K initiative can support that. We’d like a quality space and a quality person.”
Cultivating Kids since awaits the survey to assess their communities’ needs.
Kelly said that after the team collects enough data, they will go from there. She said the questions are straightforward.
“Do the communities feel that quality childcare is essential? What initiatives would be beneficial?”
There is another question, however, that isn’t as straightforward. “If we have to shut everything down again, will there be changes to childcare?” said Kelly.
When asked about their future long-term vision for childcare, Kelly, Julie, and Rachel held a similar one: They’d love to see Wilcox-Hildreth have a childcare center they can call their own.
Meanwhile, although the questions remain so does the dream for that quality center in a quality place where kids and young families alike can call home.
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