With soothing music playing softly in the background, and the lights dimmed, three tuckered-out toddlers were snoozing away Monday afternoon at First Lutheran Church in Detroit Lakes.
It was naptime at the church’s child care, which just reopened Monday after being closed for several months.
Late Tuesday morning, those same rambunctious kids were bundled up and playing outside in the church’s fenced playground area, under the watchful eye of child care workers.
KidsFirst Preschool operated at the church since 1999 and is now open again, with a few big changes: It’s now a child care center licensed for up to 14 children, ages 2 and 3.
And it’s operated by Laker Prep Preschool and Early Childhood Center in Detroit Lakes, under a modified license issued by the state to First Lutheran Church.
The new child care setup helps parents in need, and fits the church’s mission, said First Lutheran Church Pastor Joe Skogmo. “It’s a collaborative effort,” he said, “a relationship trying to meet common goals, and that is to serve the community.”
Skogmo received a shock on his first day on the job, July 19, when “our beloved and long-term daycare provider (Diane Ullyot) retired,” he said. “That KidsFirst Preschool program was such a point of pride.”
The pandemic complicated matters further, and Skogmo and his wife, Margaret, with three children, had already experienced firsthand the “absolute panic” of losing their child care provider, and having to juggle work schedules for several months.
As it happens, Margaret served as the director and head teacher of Discovery Days Preschool in Lowry, Minn., where Skogmo served as a solo pastor at St Paul’s Lutheran Church for the past seven years.
When Skogmo, a Detroit Lakes native, took the First Lutheran Church position, his wife found work at Laker Prep.
Laker Prep owners Eric and Mary Rotter had been looking at possible expansion plans for several years, but possibilites just never quite seemed to gel.
So this collaborative effort, which has been approved by the church board and blessed by the church’s legal counsel, seems to be a match made in Heaven.
“At the heart of First Lutheran’s mission is to serve the community in a way that gives it the opportunity to thrive,” Skogmo said. “I can’t think of two better people to work with than Eric and Mary.”
“When we started looking at this, we looked at what the community needs,” Mary Rotter said. “We knew there wasn’t enough toddler care.”
There isn’t enough child care in general available in Becker County, which has more than 700 children (from infants to age 5) waiting for an opening, she said.
“People are searching for full-time child care,” she said. “Parents may not be working because of that, or not working as many hours.” Some are getting temporary child care help from different family members, but it’s not consistent care, she said. “People need to go to work with a calm mind, and know that their child can go (to the same place) tomorrow, too,” she said. “Employers need that, too.”
The new child care center at First Lutheran Church fits into Laker Prep’s existing continuum of care for kids age birth to 5, Rotter said.
“Our goal is that if someone starts with us, they can stay with us until age 5,” she said.
Child care facilities operate under different rules than home child cares, and ages need to be grouped together, she said.
She expects the First Lutheran child care unit to be full by mid-January, with 14 toddlers and three staffers. It is open full days Monday through Friday.
It used to be open on a more part time basis and serve kids ages 3-5.
Laker Prep will have about 100 children enrolled at all its facilities at that point, and 25 to 30 employees, Rotter said.
Laker Prep received several grants to renovate the First Lutheran child care space and make it appropriate for 2-year-olds, Rotter said. “The grants have been a real blessing,” she said. “People wonder why anyone would want to start this now (with the COVID-19 pandemic), but during COVID is when it’s needed,” she said. People still have to work, and “not all parents are blessed to have child care.”
As far as COVID-19 safeguards go, “we’ll just do as we’re told -- we’re pretty good at that,” she said. “We take all these regulations and guidelines very seriously.”