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Meeker County group searches for child care solutions

Melinda Jordan relinquished her nursing job at Meeker Manor Rehabilitation Center two years ago to look after her grandchildren.

But if child care providers were abundant in Meeker County, Jordan would still be employed.

“My daughter was on a waiting list for a center and had been for years,” Jordan, a Litchfield resident, said. “And child care providers had no openings, and then when she did find one, the lady had a baby, so no longer could watch them. So (her daughter’s children) had only been in child care for maybe a few months their whole life.”

Similar stories echo throughout Minnesota among couples who have to choose between either rearing a child or working, especially in rural areas due to lower population and meager resources.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar attempted to address the shortage when she introduced the Child Care Workforce and Facilities Act bill in the Senate in February. The bill calls for the Department of Health and Human Services to provide states and tribal entities with grants to increase access to licensed child care services.

The Meeker County Child Care Team was formed to address the child care shortage in the county. The team consists of representatives from Meeker County Social Services, Meeker County Board of Commissioners, Litchfield Public Schools and ACGC, Litchfield Area Chamber of Commerce, Meeker County Economic Development, child care centers Stay ‘N Play Child Care Center and Kids of the Kingdom, as well as two family child care provider representatives, local Child Care Aware representatives and business community.

The team submitted a grant application and recently learned Meeker County was awarded the opportunity to begin the research process, which is administered by First Children’s Finance.

The team’s next step is using the Rural Child Care Innovation Program, a community engagement process designed to increase high-quality affordable child care in rural Minnesota, to analyze Meeker County’s child care problem.

“The way our community decides to proceed with any action will be based on the identified need,” said Colleen Kotila, owner of Stay ‘N Play Child Care Center and leader of the Meeker County Child Care Team. “Any changes will be closely considered for any possible impact additional programs would have on existing programs. A primary part of the RCCIP program is to support and maintain existing programs.”

The team is hopeful that interested community members and those impacted by the shortage will participate in this process.

“The First Children’s Finance will work with the community to develop the final timeline,” Kotila said. “They’re going to help do the surveying, gathering and synthesizing the data for the town hall meetings, where it will be presented.”

The town hall meetings aren’t yet set, but Kotila said they might occur sometime in January.

Meeker County witnessed a dramatic decline in the number of in-home child care providers during the past five years, as providers dropped from 46 in 2014 to 25 in 2019.

“Of all of the providers I’ve talked to about why they chose to close,” said Syndi Raiber, a licensing social worker for Meeker County Social Services, “they have all talked about how they will miss the children they had in care and that the daily work of the job itself has not been a significant contributor to why they have closed. Part of the reason for the RCCIP process is to help identify the barriers to providers staying in business and determine some solutions for it in addition to the steps that have already been taken.”

The Center for American Progress in a 2018 study estimated 26 percent of people in Minnesota live in a child care desert, which Child Care Aware of America defined as areas or communities with limited or no access to quality child care. Meeker County is ranked 46th amid the state’s 87 counties in overall family access to child care, according to data collected by University of Minnesota’s Child Care Access.

As for care types, 34 percent of Meeker County’s child care slots are close to families, compared to the state average of 47 percent. Meanwhile, 66 percent of slots near families in the county are licensed family child care compared to the state average of 41 percent, according to the same data.

Chelsie Stenzel of Litchfield knows the challenge those numbers represent. Expecting a child in January, she has called child care providers since July, but it’s been tough.

“No openings,” she said. “I don’t have a plan yet for what I’ll do if I can’t find a child care provider by the time I’m supposed to go back.”

Stenzel is on waiting lists at Stay ‘N Play Child Care and Kids of the Kingdom. She hopes slots will open by the end of March when her 12 weeks of maternity leave elapse.

Meanwhile, the shortage might offer an opportunity for some, like Lacy Sogge-Kielty.

For 14 years, Sogge-Kielty of Litchfield worked in child care, but left the field to become a special education assistant at Eden Valley-Watkins Elementary School. Now, though, she’s hoping for a return to child care work as she enjoyed it more.

“The last two years, I worked at school but found myself missing working with the young kids on fun learning,” Sogge-Kielty said. “So now I’m back at getting my license and doing what I long for. I have heard there is a shortage, I am not sure why though. Maybe it is the rules for the providers, but in my opinion, if you’re following the rules there should be no problem.”

Sogge-Kielty said she’s noticed some changes in the application process as she seeks to return to providing care to children soon as possible.

“I have been working hard on getting reopened for business,” she said. “Had the social worker out here for a home visit. Thinking I had all the paperwork done and ready to go. Nope, I have more to do. Way more than we ever had to do years ago. I can see why it can be overwhelming and stressful. However, in the long run, if this is a business you desire, it is so worth it.”

The licensing process is becoming less complicated, according to a Meeker County Child Care Team email. Although the process is becoming simpler, the group strives to ensure the safety of children is not undermined, the email said.

“An in-home family child care program is a small business,” the email explained. “There is no business that is without regulations from many sides. The licensing process is intended to actually assist in helping providers consider things like their own liability, insurance, federal food programs, workman’s compensation/employer requirements etc. … The licensure process relatively no more arduous than opening any business in your home.”

“As a licensing social worker and a parent,” Raiber said, “I can confidently say that there is not one single regulation that I would eliminate from our current statutory requirements. The statute draws a bottom line for providers for health and safety. What I actually see when visiting our local providers are services that often well exceed this bottom line for safety and programming for our children. Lowering the bar will not solve the problem for our need for additional quality child care.”

School board approves DLC logo

Litchfield sports teams that pair with Dassel-Cokato will compete under a new logo following action by the Litchfield School Board.

The DLC logo proposed to the board last month received approval on a 5-0 vote, with one absention, during the board’s regular meeting Monday.

The vote comes after a committee of administrators and coaches from Litchfield and Dassel-Cokato schools felt a need to create a logo that would unify the co-op sports teams.

Board member Chase Groskreutz expected more discussion about the design of the logo, and he wasn’t sure whether the logo was for the whole co-op teams, based on information in the board agenda packet.

“Because when I read this, it says it’s for DCL wrestling program,” Groskreutz said.

“The logo will also be used for hockey, swimming and wrestling,” Activities Director Justin Brown replied.

Abbey Lang, Dassel-Cokato communications director, spearheaded the design with the aid of Brett Olson, owner and production manager of OverTime Ink, and developed 12 logos. That number was reduced to the one preferred design presented to the Litchfield School Board at its meeting on Sept. 23.

The committee decided to go with a logo simply displaying “DLC,” where “D” and “C” are colored navy blue with a green outline, and “L” is green with a navy blue outline.

Board member Darrin Anderson asked Brown how the logo will be used on the uniforms.

“Typically, the wrestling uniforms will have the logo,” Brown said. “The logo will probably be on the shoulder of the hockey uniforms. It could be the front. Right now, I think, in my conversations with hockey coaches, they can still have LDC on their jerseys, and maybe a patch of the (DLC) logo on the side. And for swimming, they’ll put it on their swim cap on the side.”

Anderson asked whether there would be a need for new uniforms with the new logo on them.

“So we’re in the process of transitioning the girl’s hockey uniforms,” Brown said. “What we’ve done is, I delegated some moneys of my own and also have gotten some moneys from donations, which we’ll talk about probably at the next meeting, for those uniforms. And then the boys will be in that transition for two years. Because of the color change, because of the color agreement, that’s the reason for those new uniforms.

“I feel like we did a good job of letting parents know — notifying them and letting them know the direction that we were headed,” Brown said.

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Everyone needs a safe place to sleep

For some people, a safe, warm bed to sleep on at the end of the night can make a world of difference in their life.

That’s why Hutchinson’s Tammy Rolf, founder of the philanthropy group Daughters With Purpose, wants to raise money for beds at the Place of Hope shelter in St. Cloud, which serves families from Hutchinson, Litchfield and other local communities.

“There is a real need with homelessness in our community and surrounding communities,” she said. “It’s actually an epidemic wherever you go, and a lot of people aren’t aware that this is even something that’s going on in their own community.”

When Place of Hope first contacted Rolf, she reached out to United Community Action Partnership to see the true impact of homelessness in Meeker and McLeod counties. According to Heather Jeseritz, family service manager at the UCAP chapter in Willmar, people from about 50 households a month from both counties require assistance. Those people are either facing eviction within the next 14 days or are already homeless on the streets.

“The faster that we can get services or resources to these families who are facing homelessness — we want to eliminate or prevent a homeless situation whenever possible,” Jeseritz said.

McLeod and Meeker counties currently don’t have a facility set up to take care of homeless families and individuals, so most end up at the St. Cloud program. Place of Hope provides about 7,000 meals a month, according to Rolf.

“I know when I was there, people from Hutchinson were there,” she said.

Daughters With Purpose hopes to raise enough money to buy 50 twin beds for the women and children section at Place of Hope. Through a special deal organized by Rolf, the beds cost $350 each, and several area churches have already donated or are organizing fundraisers for the cause.

Donations will be accepted through Oct. 21 and can be sent to Daughters With Purpose at 1440 Jefferson St. S.E., Hutchinson, MN 55350. People can also donate online at daughterswithpurpose.org/give.

Along with offering a place to sleep, Place of Hope provides many other services to help people in need.

“They got rehabilitation to help people get jobs and things like that,” Rolf said. “It’s not just a place for them to sleep, but there’s also an apartment where a mother and her children can live until she can get back on her feet.”

The shelter offers a 6-12 month program for people coming off the street, people suffering from drug and alcohol abuse, or people wanting a place to recover their stability and peace of mind. The program provides a place of hope, healing and restoration for individuals and families.

The shelter also helps people who are victims of human trafficking, which is more common in central Minnesota than people might realize, Rolf said.

“People don’t even think about. This is real, and the community, we need to come together and help each other,” Rolf said. “We can be the voice where they don’t have one.”

“Even if we can do something as little as 50 beds, it’s huge. It’s gigantic,” she added. “Because the gals that work at the shelter, they say, ‘When a woman and her children come in and they see they get a bed, they just sit and cry.’”