For many Nebraskans, post-pandemic inflation has strained their wallets in every aspect of daily life, from groceries to gas. Paying for child care is no different. Nebraska is the ninth most expensive state for child care for married couples and fourth for single parents. But cost aside, since the pandemic many rural communities have struggled just to keep child care centers open.
“Child care remains one of the highest gaps in communities, particularly in Nebraska,” said Linda Reddish, a Nebraska Extension childhood specialist. “It was already a pretty tenuous situation before, and then you add the stressors of COVID. It has just really put pressure on that entire field.”
According to Kyle Kellum, CEO of Cherry County Hospital in Valentine, the availability of quality child care is one the first questions asked by potential new residents.
To help close the gap, many rural Nebraska communities are getting creative in how they bring high-quality child care to their residents. And Rural Prosperity Nebraska is helping.
When Karime Child Care, LLC, opened in 2020 with aid from Rural Prosperity Nebraska’s Latino Small Business Program, it quickly became a fixture as Grand Island’s first bilingual day care. Last year, owner Carime Ruvalcaba secured her foothold even more when she, under guidance from Reddish, became the first bilingual day care in Nebraska to receive a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential.
“A CDA is an indicator of a higher quality,” Reddish said. “A CDA is saying, ‘I’m going above and beyond what’s even being required of me to open up my child care home.’ It’s a nationally recognized certificate.”
The CDA credential is offered by the Council for Professional Recognition after a rigorous application process. Among the requirements are 120 hours of formal training, experience with the proper age group, a professional portfolio, questionnaires from parents, an observation from a CDA specialist and an exam. After certification is awarded, quality standards must continue to be met, as the renewal process occurs every three years.
In addition to training, day cares that are CDA certified also meet a certain level of safety and educational standards. Ruvalcaba appreciated the guidance that Reddish provided through the complex application process. But just as important, Ruvalcaba said, is the confidence and peace of mind the certification provides to her clients.
“[With the CDA] they know I have good, quality care,” Ruvalcaba said. “I provide good toys, routines, everything to help the kids grow up and have more opportunities to learn.”
Ord recently changed how the community addressed its child care needs because, according to Katie Walmsley, deputy director for Valley County Economic Development and early childhood community coordinator for Loup Valley Childhood Initiative, all their providers were at capacity. To make matters worse, some day care providers were planning to retire.
To find a feasible solution to a growing struggle, in 2021 Walmsley and her team relied on aid from two Rural Fellows students, interns from the Rural Prosperity Nebraska initiative.
“We were looking at already having a large gap that we would need to fill, to having an even bigger gap,” Walmsley said. “So when the Rural Fellows came in, we were looking at doing a nonprofit-run center. And their first project was a feasibility study.”
After discussion with local architecture firm RD&G and community conversations with Valley County residents, all organized by Rural Fellows Kaylee Burnside and Clare Umutoni, the project morphed from building a new child care center to expanding an existing one.
“We transitioned into entrepreneurship, discovering who were the resources and the people who were in our community that could build up our entrepreneurship ecosystem,” Walmsley said. “So then we transferred [the fellows’] project into child care provider asset mapping.”
Fast-forward a year and a half. Today, Linda’s Preschool and After School Program, owned by Linda Horner, is housed in a new building and has expanded from 40 children to 168. The funding for this expansion came from public and private partnerships, as well as $400,000 in ARPA funding. And now Walmsley said they’re looking into renovating the former Ord hospital and creating rental spaces where new day cares can open.
Kyle Kellum, CEO of Cherry County Hospital, found a different solution to the child care gap. When a day care in Valentine shut down during the pandemic, leaving about 40 children without care, suddenly many hospital employees couldn’t come to work — a serious concern during a pandemic.
“Our job is to make sure we take care of the community,” Kellum said. “In order to do that, we have to have people to take care of the community.”
In summer 2022, Rural Fellows Grace Mabiala-Maye and Carine Mushimiyimana worked with the hospital to create a business plan for a hospital-centered day care. However, through the data collected from the organization-wide surveys, Kellum and the hospital board decided that option wouldn’t work.
“So it evolved,” Kellum said. “We took it from the hospital owning and operating the day care, to the hospital having an agreement with a day care provider in the community to only provide child care for hospital employees. And it started with the survey that the Rural Fellows did.”
Seven hospital employees have contracted with a certified provider in Valentine to offer day care to their children. The provider is not a hospital employee, nor does she contract with the hospital itself. However, she reserves the openings in her day care specifically for children of hospital employees. This model creates stability for the provider and employees and allows for expansion as needed.
“This model is a complete win-win all around,” Kellum said. “It’s a great win for the child care provider. It’s a great win for our team. I’m very pleased. We have very well-trained, highly qualified people who are willing to come here, live here, stay here because we can provide services for them and their families”
A stronger Nebraska
When it comes to child care, there is no model that works for all of rural Nebraska. Each community faces unique problems, and each community has unique assets and strengths they can draw from to resolve those problems. Currently, the Nebraska Cooperative Development Center, after numerous requests, is exploring what child care cooperatives might look like in Nebraska. Overall, the general consensus is that better, more quality-driven child care in rural communities makes for a better, stronger state.
“We’re caring for the workforce behind the workforce,” Reddish said. “It’s one of the best investments — not just in terms of the community benefiting economically, but in social benefits.”
Kellum said: “Whether it’s Cherry County, the Valentine community or the entire state, solving child care will allow the state to grow. No question.”