WATERVILLE — An early childhood education and care center at the Maine Children’s Home for Little Wanderers will have to scale back its services by summer if it does not receive funding help, according to the Children’s Home’s executive director.

Richard Dorian said this week that The Children’s Place Early Care and Education Center, which serves 53 children ages 6 weeks to 5 years, has not been able to find a grant partner or funding from the state or federal government to help sustain it and help parents who might not be able to afford the weekly rates, which are slated to rise in February.

“Our board made the difficult decision that if we can’t identify significant funding by summer, we will have to shrink the early care program and go from serving up to 53 to 24,” Dorian said.

The average weekly cost for a child to attend the center is $320, which is more than what most families can afford. The agency has filled the gap for many years through fundraising and unrestricted use of endowment funds, according to officials.

The Children’s Home budget approved for 2019 calls for increasing the weekly rates in February and possibly closing one preschool program and restructuring classrooms to serve only 24 children starting in July.

Dorian said that with fewer children being served, employees would have to be cut as well.

The Children’s Home, a private nonprofit organization, has subsidized the Children’s Place to the tune of about $200,000 per year for 10 years.

“For the long term, it’s just not sustainable for us to continue to keep doing that,” Dorian said.

Sarah Staffiere has two children who attend the program, one of whom has been enrolled in The Children’s Place five years.

Staffiere said she and her husband and several other families have been brainstorming ways to keep their children and staff at the center, which has been like family to their daughter, 2, and son, 5.

“We’ve reached out to countless community members, organizations and even the governor, all while working full time and caring for our children as they face this stressful transition. It certainly would be doing an incredible disservice to the children of Waterville to lose the opportunity to grow and learn under the brilliant care from these committed women without exhausting every possibility first.”

Staffiere said she and her husband are middle-income, working parents who went through the challenge five years ago of finding a place for their son, who was a baby at the time, and they fell in love with the staff at The Children’s Place and later enrolled their daughter, now 2, there.

“When my son faced a life-threatening health crisis over a year ago, the teachers and the amazing director, Mandi Howard, were my lifeline,” Staffiere said. “Now we are facing an impossible situation of finding another caregiver in a community with a real shortage of options, especially ones like The Children’s Place that hold such high educational standards and are able to accommodate my son’s ongoing medical needs.”

The Staffieres are not alone.

A WIDESPREAD PROBLEM

Teachers and children in the pre-school room sit together Thursday for lunch at the Children’s Place at the Maine Children’s Home for Little Wanderers in Waterville.

Tracye Fortin, director of child and family services programs for both the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program and early childhood education program Educare Central Maine, said inadequate funding for quality early childhood education is a widespread problem, and not just in the Waterville area.

“Educare, as well as the Maine Early Learning Investment Group, have worked with advocacy groups to provide data and information to help educate as to what the need is, because it’s absolutely not a central Maine issue — it is absolutely a state issue,” Fortin said Thursday.

KVCAP has a federal, early Head Start childhood partnership grant that helps Head Start programs contact child care providers who might serve low-income families and provide comprehensive services to the community, according to Fortin.

Head Start is a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services program that provides comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to children and families who are low-income.

KVCAP operates Educare, which represents about a third of its child development programming for the child and family development department, according to Fortin.

Educare, working on the premise that critical brain development occurs within the first three years of life, prepares children to be developmentally, emotionally and academically ready for kindergarten. Educare is attached to the George J. Mitchell School, an elementary school in Waterville.

Right now, Educare serves 200 children and has a waiting list, including for infants and toddlers, who require a higher cost for care because of teacher child care rates.

Educare partners with the Maine Children’s Home, Fortin said.

“Maine Children’s Home is one of our partners, and it’s a great relationship, so we provide some additional funding and a staff coach and a family services system for the low-income enrolled families,” Fortin said. “The intent is to reach out beyond and reach into the community and help bring resources into the community. We applied for an expanded grant, and if there’s funding, that will help us enroll more infants and toddlers at the Maine Children’s Home and Educare. We find out in March.”

Emily Spencer, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said in an email Thursday that ensuring Mainers have access to quality child care is a top priority for DHHS under Gov. Janet Mills’ administration.

“We plan to review the current challenges facing childcare providers and identify solutions aimed at increasing capacity throughout the state,” Spencer said.

Pamela Thompson, chairwoman of Thomas College’s school of education and a professor of early childhood education, said in an email, “There is an urgent need for quality early care, specifically in the birth to age 3 range, in the central Maine region,” adding, “Several colleagues (professors and staff members) of mine have struggled to find options in infant/toddler care.”

But beyond the basic challenge of having access to affordable, high-quality infant and early childhood care, Thompson pointed out, “This can be a key ingredient to the economic growth and vitality of a community.”

AN ECONOMIC ISSUE

The lack of quality, affordable early childhood care and education in the area has been an ongoing concern for businesses and organizations whose employees need it, according to Kimberly M. Lindlof, president and chief executive officer of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce.

“The Mid-Maine Chamber is very aware of the lack of child care and supportive of initiatives that try to address it, because it’s an impediment to getting able-bodied people back into the workforce,” Lindlof said.

She said that while valuable programs such as Educare Central Maine exist, there’s not enough funding for the number of children needing care, particularly infants. The chamber worked with a company over the last couple of years to try to address the issue, which also affects those who work hours other than a regular day shift, according to Lindlof.

“Even the 9-to-5 or 7-to-3 employees — there’s not enough child care in the region to fill the child care we need,” she said.

Lindlof cited a case in which a parent lives in the Farmingdale area and works in Waterville but pays for child care in the town of Clinton.

“It’s that critical,” she said. “It’s really nuts when educated professionals need to make a choice: ‘Does one of us stay home because we simply can’t find child care?’ It is a challenge as we try to fill the jobs we have. If you want your families here, you have got to have adequate child care. It’s one of those pieces that is vital. You don’t want to leave your child with just anybody.”

Like Lindlof, Fortin points to the importance of families finding quality child care programs.

“They may not be as productive at work if they’re worried about the setting their children are in or can’t afford that care,” Fortin said.

The Children’s Place has two preschool classrooms as well as classrooms for infants, mobile infants, and toddlers, and uses developmentally appropriate practices established by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The program also is based on Maine Early Childhood Learning Guidelines and Supporting Maine’s Infants and Toddlers for Learning Development. A small number of parents receive child care subsidies, but many pay out of pocket, according to Dorian. The infant program requires a higher number of staffers.

Dorian said he receives calls every month from various businesses and colleges about child care needs.

“It’s an economic issue for this community, and it makes businesses not competitive to hire staffing because of the lack of quality education for the kids,” he said, adding later, “So far, we’ve not been able to find or develop funding sources for younger children.”

Kristen Gilley said her 2-year-old son has been enrolled in The Children’s Place since he was 3 months old, and the care he has received has been “absolutely incredible.”

Gilley, who works in a senior living community, and her husband, a sheriff’s deputy, fall within the middle income bracket, which precludes their ability to get state subsidies for child care, she said.

“An increase of $75 a week is tough. However, for the care that he has received and the connections he has made with the teachers and students at The Children’s Place, we are working really, really hard to find a way to continue to afford it,” she said. “We will find out over the next few months if Jack’s spot is secure. If it is not, we are really in a predicament.”

Gilley said imagining their child not being able to stay at the Children’s Place is devastating.

Lindsay Bragdon sits for lunch with her daughter Jaynee along with her buddy Adrien on Thursday at the Children’s Place at the Maine Children’s Home for Little Wanderers in Waterville.

“The teachers who work long days to ensure that our children are cared for, constantly improving and learning — I cannot imagine breaking him from that,” Gilley said. “This is all that he has known. Finding child care in this market is almost a full-time job. With limited resources available, we are looking at all options to be proactive. However, we are now in competition with 53 other families who are facing the same predicament. Either the price increase is not affordable, or they are fearful of their child care slot not being secure. There simply are not 53 open child care slots in this area.”

THE NEXT STEP

An informational meeting for family members, the staff and the community to discuss the Children’s Place is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in Winkin Auditorium in the Lunder Hall Building on the Children’s Home campus at 93 Silver St., according to Dorian.

The Children’s Home opened in 1899 in Augusta to serve children with multiple and significant needs. Volunteers, donors and community partners committed to improving the lives of children with few options for safe and healthy homes helped run the program, according to information provided by the organization.

Last year, the Children’s Home helped more than 3,000 children, youths and families from across the state as part of its Mitchell Family Adoption Program, the Turner Family Counseling Center, Sharon Abrams Teen Parent School Program, The Children’s Place, Christmas Program and Summer camp Scholarship Program. Children of teens in the teen parent program are among those enrolled in the Children’s Place program.

The Children’s Home is governed by a volunteer board of directors whose members are from all over the state and represent varied professional expertise, skills or presence in the community so as to be able to share ideas to determine what communities need most. The board sets policy, direction and budgets.

Board members and Children’s Home officials over the last year have been discussing what the agency offers statewide and how best to ensure its sustainability without continuing to depend on its endowment funds.

The Children’s Home operates on about a $2 million annual budget, with funding coming from endowments and fundraising, according to Dorian.

Its sources of income include adoption, counseling and child care service fees; donor contributions including in-kind and donated services; grants; trust income; investments; a United Way grant; and rental income.

Fortin recommends that people searching for child care options log on to ChildCareChoices.com. Maine Roads to Quality lists licensed providers and notes, on a rating scale, what level of quality they provide, she said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

 


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