Small Wonder Executive Director: childcare in high demand

Charlie Denison

From left, Ariana Espinoza, Chase Mistretta, Harper Trafton and Mya Moline gather for a photo Thursday morning at Small Wonder Childcare. The need for childcare in town continues to increase.
Photo by Charlie Denison

What is a parent to do when it comes to childcare in Central Montana?

This is a relevant question these days, as Chokecherry Lane Childcare closed its doors in August and Small Wonder Childcare’s waiting list continues to grow.

But what’s right for one family may not be right for another. According to Small Wonder Executive Director Charisse Jennings, there are many needs, many options and “not one fit is right for every family.”

“Some parents really want the in-home childcare experience and some really appreciate the credibility and reliability of a center,” she said. “It depends on your situation and preference.”

But it also depends on the availability.

“There are only two licensed childcare facilities in Lewistown,” she said. “At Small Wonder Childcare, Inc., we take enrollment requests on a daily basis. It can be difficult to have to turn away so many families with no other resources to offer them to get their needs met. We have even seen some families leave the community due to lack of childcare.”

This is certainly a difficult obstacle for families and care providers alike, and it’s hard to find a solution, despite the improvements taking place with childcare at the state and federal levels.

Meeting the community’s needs is essential, but it’s expensive, as caregivers must be trained immunized, CPR and First Aide Certified. Caregivers are also encouraged to continue their education.

“We currently have several staff with Bachelor’s Degrees in Child Development, Early Childhood Education and K-12,” Jennings said. “We currently have 11 individuals earning their BS in Early Childhood Education.”

Jennings said training and education are vital and she does her best to not make the fees add up too much for families who depend on the care.

“Here at Small Wonder we base our fees on the minimum expenses needed to function, then offer growth such as pay raises for staff or new materials through Incentive Programs, grants and fundraisers,” she said.

This approach has paid off, as it allows employees such as Lacey Gloyne to get a degree in early childhood development. A Small Wonder employee for the past 10 years, Gloyne said she is grateful for the opportunity and wants to be her best for the children.

Gloyne said she finds it particularly rewarding to work with the children on communication.

“It’s great to see the kids improve their social skills,” Gloyne said.

Gloyne and Jennings want to spread this message in hopes that an increased awareness among employers “might greatly affect the current early childhood climate.” In Jennings’ opinion, the more people advocate for the program, the more opportunity there is to improve it. This includes parents.

"I want to see parents of young students stand up and advocate for policies that support their family," she said.


Moving in the right direction

Jennings said childcare is receiving support from a lot of the right places, as the Childcare and Development Block Grant is improving health and safety needs for the children. The Department of Public Health and Human Services has also done their part by creating a rating system called Montana STARS to help increase quality in childcare programs.

And there’s more: the Montana Preschool Development Grant has helped establishments such as Small Wonder provide access to high quality preschool options for 4-and-5 year-olds by providing Small Wonder with some additional classrooms rent-free.

Nevertheless, Jennings, who has taught at both Small Wonder and Head Start (Butte), understands all these positive changes still don’t make it easy, as childcare is expensive, and space is limited.

This is nothing new. Aware of this situation, Small Wonder has expanded in hopes to shrink its waiting list. Since she took the executive director job in 2015, Small Wonder has added classrooms at United Methodist Church – where it is based – and has expanded to an infant/toddler care facility on Fifth Avenue South that holds three additional classrooms.

In all, Small Wonder has nine classrooms and approximately 40 employees, including 36 teachers and around 200 children from infant to age 10.

This still isn’t enough.

"Consumers are in need of quality choices and options that fit their family needs, including night and weekend care, but the impact ripples further than just to those families with young children,” Jennings said.


Hoping for Change

There is no easy fix for the increasing demands of childcare in Lewistown, Jennings said, but there is still more that can be done.

Ideally, Jennings said she’d like to see corporations do more.

“I would love to see more businesses offer childcare benefits for employees,” she said. “There is one employer in town I know of that pays full childcare for their staff, which is phenomenal, but even if a business can offer $50 a month toward childcare that would be helpful.”

The expense may be high, but demand only gets higher, especially for parents with children ages 2-3.

"The biggest need in this community is for infants and toddlers," she said. "There are also a good number of four-year olds. We have 23 and Head Start has 40.”

Jennings said she works regularly with Head Start and is supportive of the program. The biggest difference between the programs, she said, is Head Start has an income eligibility program and focuses more on special needs children. Despite the differences, Jennings said she works regularly with Central Montana Head Start Director Cara Godbey.

“We try to identify all the needs in the community and work together to make sure they are met,” Jennings said.

Small Wonder, Head Start and Tina Yaeger’s small-scale Happy Hearts Infant Care do what they can to help fulfill Central Montana’s childcare needs, but Jennings said she can’t help but wish there were more childcare services available in or around town.

“I know it’s unusual to encourage competition, but when Chokecherry closed it was a sting to the community,” she said. “We're hoping to see some community wide attention given to the current childcare situation in Central Montana, and would be happy to consider partnering with individuals interested in expanding options for quality licensed child care in the area."







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