Striking a Balance: The Conundrum Between Affordability for Families and a Good Living Wage for Staff
Stick Creek Kids and Nebraska Children and Families Foundation’s Communities for Kids have worked hard to arrive at their destination: more quality early care and education in Nebraska. Surprises, lessons, and discoveries were all part of seeing Stick Creek Kids brought to reality. But whenever the water levels rose, the community rose up as well.
According to Kristine Van Hoosen, Stick Creek Kids Center Director, the community of Wood River has worked with Communities for Kids (C4K) since late 2018.
The C4K initiative partners with communities’ public and private organizations to support and coordinate planning for access to high-quality early care and education for all children from birth through age 5. These partnerships are customized to address each community’s unique assets and needs—so each community can grow and prosper well into the future.
Since working with C4K, Kristine said that one of the biggest hurdles for their community was communicating the importance of childcare to people who didn’t have children. The economic importance of childcare is easily demonstrated.
The Bottom Line Report, published in 2020 by First Five Nebraska, indicates that Nebraska’s families, businesses, and state tax revenues have forfeited almost $745 million in annual direct losses due to a childcare shortage. Moreover, childcare providers allow parents to work, which keeps Nebraska’s economy strong, while encouraging children’s social-emotional development for long-term success.
Another issue that Stick Creek Kids has faced is a familiar one for many childcare centers – paying employees well while maintaining the center’s affordability.
Kristine said that she and the team had difficulties recruiting employees with professional experience that supports their goal of high-quality learning.
But to compound the issue, Kristine said that keeping the center affordable for families is yet another related but separate issue.
Kristine said, “We can’t pay our employees enough and keep our prices low enough for families to afford the care.”
Looking Back, Looking Up, and Looking Forward: Stick Creek Kids Surges into Success
Despite these undeniable difficulties between creating and retaining a quality center and staff while maintaining affordability for families, Stick Creek Kids remains an emblem of a supportive community.
Kristine shared one of the pivotal moments that indicated Wood River’s close-knit nature.
“The trucking company that shipped our classroom furniture arrived a day earlier than they said they would,” said Kristine.
Of course, for a minute, Stick Creek Kids thought they were up the creek without a paddle. But they didn’t remain stranded for long.
“We had movers lined up to unload the truck the next day,” said Kristine.
“When it arrived, [I] put out the SOS, and we had two community pastors, our landscapers, one board member, [me], and [our] Assistant Director unloaded the whole truck.”
By the day’s end, Kristine said although everyone was tired, they learned a crucial lesson.
“It was an exhausting day, but it demonstrated the community support we have!” she said.
That said, Stick Creek Kids maintains a healthy level of faith in their community and modesty toward themselves.
“Not sure we are unique actually,” said Kristine when asked what set Wood River Apart. “We just employed the Nebraska spirit to a pressing problem and got it done!”
Despite its humility, Stick Creek Kids overflows with excitement as they see other communities create quality care.
“We’re thrilled to see so many other communities embracing the same challenge to transform families and futures! So very glad that C4K is creating opportunities for communities to learn from one another and building upon both successes and setbacks!” said Kristine.
Stick Creek Kids Experiences a Flood of Enrollment
Still, there have been more surprises for Stick Creek Kids, including the enthusiastic reception of their center. Although Wood River was well aware of the need for early care, they hadn’t expected so many families to enroll in the center.
“The enrollment at our center has grown beyond our expectations,” said Kristine.
With a heightened enrollment comes increased square footage. But Stick Creek Kids rose again to the occasion, thanks to even more support from some special guests.
“A flood happened in our community, and we ended up being able to purchase a lot more square footage for our center than we could have afforded had we built new. Scott Frost came back to Wood River to do a fundraiser for us!” said Kristine.
Now, with added support and space, Stick Creek Kids extends through the area and into realizations.
Many of Stick Creek Kids’ discoveries have to do with the power of the Wood River community.
Kristine said, “We learned we have a fantastic community that was willing to believe in a big dream with us.”
Despite Wood River’s supportive community, Kristine said that not everyone will be on board.
“Reflecting back on our experience, we see that there were some key ‘influencers’ in the community [whom] we should have tried harder to enlist early,” said Kristine.
Kristine said that although some key players in town weren’t immediately involved, that nonetheless, she and her community are delighted that they’ve still managed to open their doors to quality care.
“Yet, it feels great to have succeeded despite not having their support!” she said.
Kristine said that one of their biggest lessons included the importance of relationship-building and storytelling.
“Networking and building relationships across the state has been a key part of our success. Telling our story and personalizing the challenges has an impact on the audience,” said Kristine.
Among those valuable networking resources, Kristine names C4K. Kristine said C4K’s benefits include coaching, guidance, expertise, networking, and support!
Surging Ahead: Where is Stick Creek Kids Headed Next?
For any new community that works with C4K, Kristine imparts some words of wisdom.
“The challenges are significant, but if you set your mind to it and are willing to build broad community support, you will succeed! Having C4K walk alongside you will be essential as they help you read the road map and plug into valuable information and resources,” she said.
Nonetheless, the center and team have created a crystal-clear vision of quality care – and the excitement is palpable.
“WOW! The community knew we needed more childcare, but now they’re actually seeing quality early childhood education in action on Facebook,” said Kristine. “I think that’s been a real ‘WOW!’ moment for people of all ages.”
“At the one-year mark, I expect [us] to be full and have a comfortable waiting list. I expect more low-income households to be able to access our care, thanks to Subsidy and the ELS Scholarships,” said Kristine.
As Stick Creek Kids continues to flow around the twists and turns, Kristine said the team hopes to create partnerships.
“In five years, we hope to be seeing measurable results as our kiddos have migrated into the public school system. We’re working with our elementary school principal and preschool teacher to dovetail with the school’s programs,” she said.
Among some of Stick Creek Kids other plans include implementing metrics for success.
“We hope to implement a measurement system to track testing and behavioral findings of [Stick Creek Kids] versus non-Stick Creek Kids [participants] over time,” said Kristine. “That will help us know where the additional emphasis needs to be placed at Stick Creek Kids to ensure our kiddos are truly prepared for success in school and life.”
Kristine left us with words of wisdom that define quality early care.
“It’s everything above and beyond ‘safe and happy,’” she said. “It’s building healthy relationships with teachers and peers, intentional efforts to implement curriculum, organized activities that expose them to new things, nutritional and tasty food that sets the stage for lifelong eating habits, outdoor exploration, and creative play.”
Where They are Now: Kristine Shares More Challenges and Victories
Although Stick Creek Kids continues to endure occasional challenges, these moments only signify the team’s grit and adaptability. Today, Stick Creek Kids has increased their capacity from 80 to 120 children in their care!
Kristine and the team deliver more good news.
“All of our 20 full-time staff have completed every state-required training, such as their CPR Safe With You [courses],” said Kristine.
The team has every reason to feel triumphant; Safe With You is the cornerstone of quality childcare.
Delivered by our partners, the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE) and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (NEDHHS), Kristine said her staff finished the program in less than three months!
These courses are required, as licensed childcare providers must comply with Nebraska’s 43-2606 statute, which mandates licensed providers to complete trainings to fulfill children’s health, safety, and developmental needs.
Still, the staff continues to ascend to even greater heights.
Kristine is proud that her team completed the intensive research-based domains for the Nebraska Early Learning Guidelines (EGL) with a quick turnaround!
EGL is a seven-module program that focuses on evidence-based early development and strategies that create positive outcomes in children’s lives.
Kristine’s staff completed this rigorous training in record time!
“Each domain takes six hours to complete, and each center has five years to do this,” she said. “For our center to finish [this program] in 11 months is an accomplishment that would be hard-pressed to find anyone else doing.”
Kristine said the Stick Creek team balanced these demands with their full-time work schedules.
“These ladies completed [this course] while working 40-plus hours a week,” she said.
Kristine said that Stick Creek Kids has even begun to offer their employees a $200 bonus to finish the EGL during this remarkably fast time frame.
Above all, Kristine and the team display enviable grit.
“Stick Creek Kids had an exciting and challenging year; overall, we’re very optimistic to see what the future has in store for us,” she said.
We believe her and can’t wait to see what happens next!