Sometimes, in this life, the path to success is pebbled with challenges. When you pursue a dream, as noble as that pursuit is, success isn’t inevitable. Still, if you’re committed to living your dream, then you can’t imagine a life without it. You’ll push and pull and root for your vision. And you’ll make that dream materialize with the help of the whole community.
Welcome to Wood River, Nebraska. Their Communities for Kids (C4K) core team is proud to announce the opening of their childcare center, Stick Creek Kids. But like most dreams, the team hasn’t always walked on a smooth path. But rather than backing down, they embarked on the challenging road. Together, with the help of their community, the center’s doors will open.
Nebraska Children and Families Foundation can’t agree more with this approach toward change. As an organization that enacts positive change through engaging communities, we’re heartened to see Wood River living out this mission. Communities for Kids is one of our Early Childhood programs that guides and supports communities and childcare providers to create quality programs.
When we spoke with two of the Wood River C4K core team members, Sara Arnett and Kristine VanHoosen, we could hear the excitement in their voices. Their enthusiasm is enough to convince you that whether we reach our goals or brush against them, one thing is for certain: the chase is worth it. And together, as a community, Nebraska can accomplish great things.
Sara agrees with this statement. “We’ve had great partners and wonderful funders,” she said. “Anything that’s challenging is worth it.”
Amid the center’s remarkable opening, Sara said that she applauds the team’s innovation.
Sara said, “What’s striking about this project is that we took a nursing home that was closed and took this lifeless structure and turned it into a place for our community.”
With nearly 75% of Nebraska children in some type of care while their parents work, early childhood programs are crucial to the state’s economy. They support working parents on the job, allow businesses to recruit and retain talent and help Nebraska’s future workforce develop cognitive and social-emotional skills for long-term success in school and life. According to a 2020 study, The Bottom Line, inadequate access to childcare costs Nebraska families, businesses and state tax revenues nearly $745 million annually in direct losses.
But as with any quality early childhood program, Wood River didn’t build the center in a day. Long before Stick Creek Kids existed, Wood River had been committed to solving an obvious problem. Like so many rural Nebraska areas, Wood River lacked quality childcare. But pretty soon, the community began to brainstorm solutions in many areas in addition to childcare.
“In 2012, we did community planning,” said Sara. “We identified our strengths and weaknesses. We now have more housing, a [public] pool, in 2018, we created a new waterpark – it drew people here from one-and-a-half hours away for all summer long.”
For the community, this is just the beginning.
Sara said, “We’re not only checking the box. We’re blowing it off the page! C4K and Nebraska Children’s relationships have been transformative. This center is going to be an outstanding early childhood experience for our community.”
Since the team became committed to pursuing the dream to create a childcare center, Sara said she’s motivated by the area’s ongoing volunteer support.
“It’s exciting for people to be involved, and they get so much more out of it than they put in!”
By the end of 2017, the C4K core team began to roll up their sleeves, along with the Wood River Vision 2020 board. Sara and the other core team members continued to research what went right and what went wrong for childcare in other rural Nebraska communities. The group would later apply their findings to Stick Creek Kids.
Sara said, “We’d done a lot before C4K; we wish we’d known about it before. C4K is outstanding – it’s had such an impact on Nebraska; it’s making a huge difference. “
Wood River is delighted to welcome Stick Creek Kids’ director, Kristine VanHoosen. At first blush, Kristine is just as much of an early childhood activist as she is a director – and she has the energy to prove it.
“It’s amazing,” she said regarding her work with the C4K team. “I’ve worked in childcare for 20 years, and I’ve never been a part of something where everyone wants to work together.”
Kristine currently is busy reviewing applications for the center’s staff. She said that she has a specific vision of the ideal candidate.
“Every time I hire someone, I’m hiring people who get the vision. It’s special,” she said. Kristine said that her vision matches her work ethic. “I come to work every day to know I helped a child and family – this is NOT just a paycheck,” she said.
In addition to asking standard interview questions, as Kristine puts together the dream-team, she asks specific early childhood-related questions.
Kristine said, “I’ll ask applicants about their philosophy on play and their vision of education. I want them to come here knowing that we’ll invest in their education and their understanding of early childhood.”
Kristine said that she has looked at an applicant and immediately felt compelled to hire that person.
“I looked right at an applicant and I saw something in her,” said Kristine. “So, I said, ‘Come teach with us.’” Kristine said that above all, she trusts her intuition and first impressions.
“You get into a space where there’s an aura and presence,” she said when asked to describe her feeling of meeting a strong teacher. “You can’t see it, but you can feel it. [As a Stick Creek Kids teacher, you] will be valued for the job you do and the person you are. I’m looking for passion; you can’t replace passion.”
Most of all, Kristine clarified what childcare is and isn’t.
“We are NOT a daycare. We ARE an early childhood development center,” she said. “I hold myself accountable. If Stick Creek Kids is amazing, it will be partly because of me, and partly because of my staff. I tell my staff, ‘You are better than a daycare.’”
In addition to Kristine holding her vision of the program close, the community has created one of its own.
Kristine said, “Stick Creek Kids’ mission is to create a nurturing environment and promote stimulating learning in growing hearts and minds.”
Kristine said that even before the program opens its doors, the center is already a community member.
“Stick Creek Kids has become Wood River as a whole. Our community needs childcare; it makes us a complete community.”
Our first impression of Kristine being an early childhood advocate, it so turns out, was correct.
“There is a lot of activism,” she said about her field. “We’re advocating for early education.” As a result, Kristine will ask her candidates other equally important questions.
“I’ll ask, ‘Do you have an interest, understanding, and knowledge of this profession?’” she said.
Kristine also said that although the road to Stick Creek Kids wasn’t smooth, she remains dedicated, not only to children who need quality care, but to her fellow core team members.
“We have become a family who values each other and what we do. Nothing can come easy for Stick Creek Kids, but I know I’m going to be starting in a [center] that is amazing,” she said.