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Child care town hall meeting draws a crowd

More than 60 people gathered at Ecumen Detroit Lakes' Forest Conference Center Thursday night for a Becker County Town Hall meeting hosted by the Rural Child Care Innovation Program. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)1 / 2
A big part of Thursday night's Becker County Town Hall meeting on the rural child care shortage focused on finding innovative solutions to the problem. This brainstorming session will form the basis of a “Community Solutions Action Plan” that the local RCCIP core team hopes to implement sometime within the next two years. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)2 / 2

Does Becker County have a child care shortage? The short answer is, yes — a big one.

A total of 648 child care slots are needed to meet the county's current needs, according to data gathered from a recent survey conducted by the Rural Child Care Innovation Program, or RCCIP.

The RCCIP is an initiative launched by the Twin Cities-based First Children's Finance to address the challenges of early child care and education in greater Minnesota through the lens of economic development — and Becker County is one of six rural Minnesota communities that were chosen to participate this year, along with Fairmont, Howard Lake, Quad Cities/Virginia, Red Wing and Kandiyohi County.

The urgent nature of the problem was evident in the number of people who attended a Becker County Town Hall meeting in Detroit Lakes Thursday night, despite an unexpected winter snowstorm that afternoon and evening which left local road conditions quite difficult to navigate.

Organized by the members of Becker County's RCCIP team and facilitated by trainer Jessica Beyer of First Children's Finance, the meeting drew upwards of 60 area residents, including Minnesota State Senator Kent Eken and Becker County Commissioner Don Skarie, just to name a few.

Local RCCIP team member Carrie Johnston talked a little bit about the survey at the start of the meeting, noting that almost 800 local residents had responded.

"We're going to do a 'deep dive' into that (survey data)," she said before introducing Beyer, who took the lead on the evening's discussion from that point forward.

Beyer's PowerPoint presentation on current child care availability in Becker County showed that the highest need centered squarely on Detroit Lakes — which makes sense since it's also the community with the highest population. The need is pretty widespread, however, as shortages exist in just about every community within the county.

Beyer said that her company's role in the ongoing discussions will be to act as facilitators, educators and supporters for the local teams participating in the program.

"We are the biggest cheerleaders for every community we work with, because we want them to succeed (in finding solutions)," she said, adding that while her own children are no longer at an age where they require child care, she remembers all too well how difficult it was to find good, stable providers when she was a working mom of three.

Beyer also noted the importance of enrolling children in high quality daycare programs "from birth on up," because learning is just as important in the early stages of a child's development — if not more so — as it is when they reach kindergarten.

From an economic perspective, daycare providers are really the earliest trainers of tomorrow's workers, because that's where they begin developing the social and cognitive skills necessary to succeed later in life, both as a student and later, in their chosen careers.

At that age, she added, "children are like sponges — literally." In other words, they absorb everything they're taught, both positive and negative.

"You don't even have to like kids to recognize that it (child care) is a good investment," she added.

Plus, employees that have access to good quality, stable daycare have been shown to be more focused and productive on the job — and conversely, when they don't, they may even have to quit their jobs, or go to work on a part-time basis.

One of the parents surveyed in the study said, "Child care is not an easy job, and it's not financially sustainable. We all want great child care but can't all afford it."

Beyer also noted that infant child care was a particularly critical need.

After Beyer's presentation, the audience broke out into small groups to begin discussing five key areas where they might begin addressing the problem:

Developing resources to support both new and existing daycare providers;

Increasing and supporting infant child care opportunities in the community;

Developing more options for high quality daycare for families;

Making child care more affordable for families;

Beyer later said that the data gathered from Thursday night's small group discussions will be refined at another RCCIP project team meeting in December, and she will then take that information to begin drafting a "Community Solutions Action Plan" for addressing the child care shortage problem, for implementation within the next 1½-2 years.

Besides Johnston, who is the president of the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce, other members of the local RCCIP core team include Karen Pifher, Essentia Health; Kim Lage, White Earth Child Care, Barb Moser, Becker County Human Services; Kitti Kivi-Lex, Frazee Public Schools; Mary Rotter, Laker Prep School; Katie Lundmark, Ecumen Detroit Lakes; Luann Harris, Lakes & Prairie Child Care Aware; Kelcey Klemm, City of Detroit Lakes; Guy Fischer, Becker County Economic Development; Lori Thorp and Fran Rethwisch, Mahube-Otwa Community Action; Brittany Nordick, BTD Manufacturing; Myron Pauna, SJE Rhombus; and Viva Lauinger, Lakeshirts.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 17 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454