Editor’s Note: Part of an ongoing series about the lack of child care in the area.
Dealing with the lack of child care can be frustrating for day care providers. Having several rules to follow and a lack of qualified personnel in the workforce are just a couple of hurdles child care providers must jump.
Day care in Neoga got to the point where it wasn’t cost-effective to run a small scale day care business. Several tried. However, none survived.
Marian Lindley and her daughter, Kim Varner, were determined to have day care in Neoga. They found a way to keep day care in their community.
Carol Smith serves as a board member for the two Strong Beginnings locations, one on the 300 block of West Sixth Street and another on West Sixth Street in the old elementary school close to Jennings Park.
“They felt there was a need in our community for day care,” Smith said about Lindley and Varner.
Lindley and Warner created a non-for-profit Christian day care called Strong Beginnings Early Learning Center. Strong Beginnings keeps its doors open through the support of businesses and members of the community.
Strong Beginnings is a nonprofit 501©3 organization and donations are tax deductible for those who are eligible to claim deductions. The organization has a nine-member board of directors.
“Board members do not get paid to be on the board or to serve,” Smith said. “And we volunteer a lot.”
“It was huge process to get this place going,” Smith said. “It took them a year or more to get this open. They had to establish a board of directors and applying for 501©3 status.”
Smith said the building they use now for day care is the same building used for a day care business.
“There were quite a few past owners,” Smith said. “And it’s been difficult to keep them open.”
Jessica Johnston is director of Strong Beginnings’ Early Learning Center day care location. Johnston started as a teacher three years ago and was named director two years ago.
Johnston agreed with the concept it was hard for privately owned operators to keep their doors open.
“That is the reason they moved toward being a nonprofit to run things,” Johnston said.
“This is an amazing community,” Smith said. “We have had some really, really wonderful benefactors that have been generous to us.”
“The families in this community are wonderful,” Smith said. “They are generous and everyone is trying really hard to support us.”
Strong Beginnings has 30 children at its day care location and 20 preschool students in the old Neoga elementary school. Director of the Strong Beginnings preschool location is Angela Isley.
“We are currently full,” Johnston said. “Right now I have 20 families on my waiting list and I get calls daily wanting day care.”
“We think about expansion all of the time,” Smith said. “However, when you cross over that 50 (children) mark regulations change making it more difficult and very expensive to operate.”
“Right now as a nonprofit, we are trying to offer a service to the community,” Smith said. “Financially, we try to keep the cost for our families as low as we can keep them.”
Smith said Strong Beginnings does grant writing and fundraising to fund scholarships. She said the parents of the kids help with fundraisers, bring lunch for the workers sometimes and help provide supplies to help with overall cost.
“If a family that is attending with us right now experiences a tough time, we will try to help them out with scholarships,” Smith said.
Strong Beginnings has four full-time staff members and six part time, including students attending university-level classes.
“We try and make it family oriented for the staff, as well as the students,” said Johnston.
“All of us get along,” Johnston said. “If someone is feeling down for some reason, we might send an encouraging note or send flowers. So, we do really look out for each other here.”
Johnston said with college-aged students on staff, they are always looking for future staff members.
“It’s a constant process,” Smith said. “The kids working here while going to college are going to graduate and go into bigger waters.”
“It’s just a constant battle,” Smith added.
Johnston said she gets her college student workers from either Lake Land College or Eastern Illinois University.
“Teachers who meet the standards are the hardest to find,” Smith said.
“I think it might be nice for colleges and high schools to work together to create a pathway for students to follow to make child care or day care a career.” Smith said. “But then again, it always goes back to the finances.”
Smith said their goal is to keep the cost of day care low for families in the community. That is one of the reasons they are having a hard time finding qualified teachers.
“I know that all of our families are working hard to provide for their children and families,” Smith said. “Everywhere you turn there seems to be a lot of help wanted ads out there. And many of those jobs pay more than we are able to pay.”
“When we loose somebody who wants to go somewhere else for higher pay or benefits, we understand the fact they are taking care of their families,” Smith said.
Smith hopes if regulations change, they aren’t changed too much.
“We want to make sure we take care of the children,” Smith said. “We want to make sure the kids are well taken care of and safe.”
“I’m not sure what the answer is,” Smith said.
Johnston said another way the day care tries to keep costs down is by purchasing meals from the elementary school using the OPAA food management program.
“I order a certain number of meals each day and they prepare it for us,” Johnston said. “They give us a lot of different choices.”
“It is cost efficient for us because we’re not paying someone to go to the grocery store to shop and then hiring someone to come back to cook and plan meals,” Smith added.
Johnston said after the meals are prepared Strong Beginnings personnel pick up the meals and deliver them to their two Neoga locations. The day care receives a partial reimbursement for food costs from the state.
“The beauty of working with the school district is they have nutritional regulations,” Smith said. “They have to have certain foods that fall under different categories. That is getting figured out over there.”
She said the second location at the old Neoga Elementary School is a preschool that also houses the state-funded Project HELP preschool program that is part of the school district.
Smith said having the two entities in the same location gives parents an advantage that might not be available if the two entities were in separate locations. Director of the Strong Beginnings Preschool at the old elementary school is Angela Isley.
She said Project HELP is only a half-day program and Strong Beginnings keeps a full-day schedule. Children at Project HELP have the option of joining the Strong Beginnings group after they complete their half-day activities or before entering their afternoon Project HELP program.
“DCFS requires us to have a barrier between us,” Smith said.
“But what makes it so great is children that attend Project HELP in the morning can stay under the roof of that building and come down to our program in the afternoon,” Smith said. “So, a parent doesn’t have to worry about midday transportation and doesn’t have to be disturbed during the day.”
Smith said since Strong Beginnings is an all-day program, the half-day Project HELP children have the opportunity to have lunch either before or after entering their half day at Strong Beginnings.
“It’s a very special situation,” Smith said. “It’s amazing.”
Strong Beginnings has offered day care in Neoga for five years.
Donations to Strong Beginnings Early Learning Center can be made through their Facebook book page blue donation bar, strongbeginnings.net or call 217-895-0055 for more information.