The New Nebraska: How Loup Valley Childhood Initiative Continues to Create Communities for Kids

If 2020 has proven anything, it’s that our communities are resilient. Even as COVID cases rise and we hear, dread, and avoid words such as “uncertain,” “unprecedented,” and “difficult,” the fact is that these times are all those things.  

But we can’t characterize our struggles with this limited vocabulary. Along with uncertainty, Nebraska Children and Families Foundation also uses words such as “resiliency,” “thriving,” and “hope,” because we still see communities innovating and adapting in incredible ways to rise up, better and stronger.  

Valley County, Nebraska, is a great example of a creative, growing, and bonded community. To use another overused but compelling term, as we move towards our “new normal,” we envision our state as emerging as a NEW Nebraska, a place where our communities, despite their differences, can come together with people of all ages, backgrounds, and expertise to grow and repair their lives and the lives of the next generation.  

The New Nebraska includes Valley County and Ord (pictured above). Photo borrowed from Wikipedia.
The New Nebraska includes Valley County and Ord (pictured above). Photo borrowed from Wikipedia.

Long before COVID, Ord has proven to be a place of reinvention. Most recently, one of the town’s most pressing projects has been to address the childcare scarcity. Some of the women behind this effort are Loup Valley Childhood Initiative core leaders and Ord residents, Melani Flynn, Katie Walmsley, and Kristina Foth.  

These three women, along with their cohort, represent the New Nebraska: a place where light and meaning emerge from desolation. A place that recreates itself as stronger and better, even when fighting against the pandemic.  

One of the ways that communities strengthen their economic health, attract young families, and ensure everyone thrives, is to create quality childcare. Today, we spoke with these three women, and they shared their aspirations and professional talents that will create new childcare in Valley County.  

Melani’s Story: Childcare Cultivates Opportunity for the New Nebraska  

Melani recalls her early years spent with a quality, in-home provider. She and her three sisters, under this caregiver’s watchful eye, grew up to become diverse, talented people.  

Together, Melani and her sisters spent every day in a state of creative growth and play, which is what she wishes to see for her hometown, where she now lives, works as a Law Associate at the firm Stowell, Geweke & Piskorski, and expects her first child.  

It’s worth mentioning that Melani’s first childcare provider was her mother. To this day, Melani aspires to recreate this compassionate, educational sensibility for all children, her own and others, who call Valley County their home.  

Melani's first teacher and provider was an excellent one. She wants to replicate this experience for her first child and ALL of Loup Valley's kids. (l to r): Melani's grandmother, Melani, and her mom.
Melani’s first teacher and provider was an excellent one. She wants to replicate this experience for her first child and ALL of Loup Valley’s kids. (l to r): Melani’s grandmother, Melani, and her mom.

“We’d read books, we read monster books, we’d wear monster masks; it was creative play,” said Melani as she recalls her memories of her quality childcare.  

When asked how she and her team envision their ideal childcare, Melani was quick to respond.  

“I’d want someone like my mom to run it,” she said. “I’d want children to play without failure in it. I’d want our children to enjoy creativity and for each little human to discover themselves.” 

When asked how she envisions the physical aspect of a childcare center, Melani has a blueprint for a few dreams. For Melani, the New Nebraska doesn’t only include a happy, healthy community that appeals to young families. For Melani, one of the things she values most is integrating all ages and backgrounds. 

“I’d LOVE an awesome [early childhood] development center. I’m super-passionate about intergenerational interactions. For example, I’d love to have children read to people from nursing homes, then THEY read to the kids. Maybe play an instrument for [the children] or teach them a craft.”  

When asked about her goal for a childcare center, Melani said she wants to elevate human interaction. 

No stranger to intergenerational bonding herself, when Melani isn’t serving on the Loup Valley Childhood Initiative, she is a lawyer at the same firm as her grandfather. She continues to envision a Nebraska that blends our youngest and eldest members of society.  

Melani (right) keeps her friends close and her relatives even closer! Here's a graduation picture of Melani with her grandfather, who works at the same law firm that she does!
Melani (right) keeps her friends close and her relatives even closer! Here’s a graduation picture of Melani with her grandfather, who works at the same law firm that she does!

In assembling the Loup Valley Childhood Initiative team, Melani is inspired by the diversity in her colleagues’ professions, backgrounds, and ages.  

One of the traits that emanates from every meeting is enthusiasm, which Melani and her Loup Valley Childhood Initiative Co-Coordinator, Katie Walmsley, work to cultivate. 

“We listen to our core team members during meetings,” Melani said. “We want to make sure that [our team members] can contribute to an area that contributes to their energy,” she said. 

Although the team is still in its infancy, the passion is alive and well. As the group is compiling data to assess their childcare gaps, Melani remains committed to helping her fellow members find where their ambitions lie. 

“One core team member, Jessica Piskorski, loves language, so she helped with our [Communities for Kids] grant application and survey questions,” said Melani.  

“Crystal Ramm, the Regional Director for Central Community College Ord Learning Center and core team member, does a babysitters’ boot camp for eleven to fifteen-year-olds.” 

Melani said that as they explored this program, she immediately sensed a connection and possible solution for not only childcare, but young women’s well-being. So, the core team is now collaborating to make the bootcamp include a leadership component.   

“So, [these young women] can learn about their personality type, entrepreneurial skills, how to professionalize themselves. We’re working with young girls. Maybe they’re going through puberty, maybe they have low self-confidence. We tell them, ‘You’re an entrepreneur. You’re your own private CEO.’”    

As the team is still assessing their community’s childcare needs, one thing is for certain: childcare is a need.  

Katie’s Story: Childcare is More Than Relief for Working Parents 

According to Katie, the need is great. As Valley County’s Economic Development (VCED) Program Coordinator, Katie got her feet wet in her new role in August. She’s continued to make a splash with her expertise in multiple disciplines.  

“We have a gap in 109 children under the age of five who are not in licensed childcare,” said Katie in regard to Ord’s great need for a center.  

Katie said that Nebraska Children helped her, and the team tabulate these uneasy results. Like her cohort, Katie is more than qualified to use her multifaceted professional background to address solutions.  

Katie (middle), sees quality care being as important as encouraging the community's awareness of a child's crucial first five years.
Katie (middle), sees quality care being as important as encouraging the community’s awareness of a child’s crucial first five years.

For Katie, beyond the data, she wishes to instill awareness in her community about how important early childhood development is, and how early care can help.  

“I studied psychology,” said Katie. “I know how important child development is, but people like me don’t [always] know how crucial a child’s first five years are, and how they can affect them as an adult. People need to understand how important this time is,” she said.  

One of the points that Katie wishes to stress to her community is that childcare is more than a catalyst for economic development, more than a way to enhance parents’ ability to work. Although these two outcomes are important to the New Nebraska’s emergence into the next phase, growth and development are essential too. 

Thus far, the survey confirms what the team suspected. Katie said that 40% of the respondents said that a lack of access to childcare has disrupted their work.  

Kristina’s Story: Childcare IS Taking Care of Business. Here’s How…  

“I want our community to grow and be a resource for other businesses,” said Kristina.  

Another vibrant Loup Valley Childhood Initiative team member, Kristina left Ord, then felt a magnetic pull to return. She now works as the Director at Ord Area Chamber of Commerce & Valley County Economic Development. 

“Professionally, a childcare lack has a significant impact on our local workforce,” she said. “[The lack] of childcare affects when parents have to reduce their [work hours] to part-time, or don’t go back to work. Knowing these families’ struggles puts it into perspective,” she said.  

Kristina said that the lack of childcare poses a setback for families who wish to relocate to towns like Ord.  

“This [childcare scarcity] is also a recruitment issue,” she said. “If a young family wants to relocate here, what if they ask about our childcare situation? You want to share the reality, but not put the community in a negative light.” 

Kristina is no stranger to this struggle. A mother of two, her youngest daughter is eight months old. Kristina was unable to find a spot among any of the local childcare providers for her child, so she became strategic. 

“We’ve gotten creative about what childcare looks like,” she said. “We have a sixteen-year-old homeschool student come in three days a week. Then, my grandmother watches my daughter for the other two days,” she said.  

Kristina recognizes, however, that her luck and support may not be as available to others. 

“I feel blessed but other families may not have those personal connections,” she said.  

Kristina Foth (right) with her family. Kristina's undergone her own struggles to find childcare. She now dedicates her time and talents to helping others address their own childcare difficulties.
Kristina Foth (right) with her family. Kristina’s undergone her own struggles to find childcare. She now dedicates her time and talents to helping others address their own childcare difficulties.

As Kristina and the team gather their community’s responses and prepare for their dreams and challenges, she shared her vision of what quality care looks like. In her case, a quality center is a family’s peace-of-mind, and in Kristina’s mind, another family’s peace is her satisfaction.  

“I’d love to know that families KNOW they have access to quality care whenever they need it, including infant care. Or if [a parent’s] job changed or if a single parent begins working a nightshift or at any other point in the day, they can know care is there.” 

Kristina said one of the team’s core objectives is to ensure that Ord’s current providers feel supported and included in these efforts. 

As a result, before the rise in COVID cases, the team held provider brunches (pictured below) to build a culture of connection. 

“Brunches are an intentional step to build relationships,” Kristina said. “We don’t want childcare providers to feel that they’re without resources and support.”  

The New Nebraska: a place where, whether faced with a lack of childcare or a global pandemic, communities put their differences aside to leverage their talents.  

The New Nebraska begins with three women who hail from different backgrounds, who felt a pull to return to where they’re from, not only for their children, but everyone else’s for generations to come.  

The New Nebraska: a place for kiddos to enjoy quality care - everywhere. Loup Valley Childhood Initiative connected with their families and kids on National Night Out, a community event in Ord.
The New Nebraska: a place for kiddos to enjoy quality care everywhere. Loup Valley Childhood Initiative connected with their families and kids on National Night Out, a community event in Ord.

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Nebraska Children and Families Foundation supports children, young adults and families at risk with the overall goal of giving our state's most vulnerable kids what they need to reach their full potential. We do this by building strong communities that support families so their children can grow up to be thriving, productive adults.

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