In Red Cloud, Nebraska, a town of just over a thousand residents, the upcoming arrival of six newborns has staff at The Valley Child Development Center (TVCDC) in full preparation mode.
“Red Cloud is growing,” said Kerra Robinson, executive director of TVCDC, a 7,000-plus-square-foot nonprofit childcare facility built in Red Cloud last April. “When we opened, we made plans for one infant room. But there are enough people moving to town or starting families that we’re actually getting a second room ready this week to accommodate the increased demand.”
Supporting Red Cloud’s growth was one of the main reasons the TVCDC project was launched in 2015.
“Residents were in desperate need of childcare options,” Robinson said. “A year ago, there was only one certified provider within a 20-mile radius of town, and that provider had limited space. That type of scenario really impacts a community’s ability to attract new residents and sustain itself economically.”
A series of community action planning meetings led by the Nebraska Community Foundation in 2012 identified childcare access as a crucial concern for Red Cloud’s future. A community needs survey conducted the following year found that a staggering 87% of households seeking care had problems obtaining it.
Childcare availability is a familiar struggle in rural America. A recent survey by the Center for American Progress found that up to 61 percent of rural communities qualify as childcare deserts — areas where quality care is either inadequate or unavailable. The problem is especially severe in communities where the median family income is below the national average. This includes Red Cloud, where over 51% of the population is low- to moderate-income.
But beyond economics, childcare access is also a social issue.
“This problem ultimately impacts children, themselves,” said Sally Hansen, chair of TVCDC’s board of directors. Hansen spent much of her professional career as an early childhood specialist, then as the supervisor for early childhood education programs for school districts in south central Nebraska. She was one of the pioneering advocates for TVCDC, and had a key role in the planning and support-seeking to get it off the ground.
“Around 85% of a child’s brain development occurs by age five, and much of that before age three,” Hansen said. “Young children need a nurturing, intellectually stimulating environment where they are challenged and enriched at this crucial stage in brain development, and where they can be educated in ways that will help them reach their full potential as adults. We wanted TVCDC to be a model for high-quality child development in rural America.”
Hansen’s views are backed by research. For example, the Nobel Laureate economist James J. Heckman once conducted a now-famous longitudinal study finding that children who grew up receiving high quality childcare during their early years turned out to be more successful adults. Other studies have shown that children with higher quality childcare grow up to earn more money, have better health, and be less likely to engage in criminal activity.
Hansen and her colleagues kept the quality element in mind throughout the planning and development of TVCDC. With five classrooms, outdoor play spaces that are nature-based and a full kitchen — plus a staff of three certified teachers, as well as five assistant teachers who are pursuing their education in early childhood development — TVCDC feels more like an elementary school than a “daycare.” Staff focus on children’s needs across all ages and stages of development, and provide enriching activities like summer camps where kids build and program robots, engineer with Legos, take dance and karate lessons. It’s a place kids want to be — not just somewhere they get dropped off in the morning.
“Our staff at TVCDC were hired with the understanding that we’re all lifelong learners,” Hansen said. “It’s our goal to provide high-quality child development services, and to go above and beyond for the children and their families — to raise up the entire community. We’ve created both a small business and an asset to Red Cloud’s economic development.”
News about TVCDC has spread quickly since the facility opened last January. Parents in Red Cloud and surrounding Webster County say they’re thrilled to have a reliable option where they can be confident their kids are receiving quality care. Both Robinson and Hansen say they’ve already seen how the TVCDC is changing families’ lives.
Robinson said she has spoken to a variety of parents — working couples, single moms and dads — who say their quality of life has completely changed since the arrival of TVCDC. One mother said she was able to go back to working full-time. Another was able to go back to nursing school. A family from out of town even decided to move to Red Cloud and buy the local grocery store, all because there was childcare available for their three young daughters.
It helps that TVCDC is a viable option available to all families, regardless of level of income.
“We’re a non-profit, and we can also accept state and federal childcare subsidies,” Hansen said. “So for many families, we’re literally the first affordable childcare option they’ve ever had. That makes a huge difference in the well-being of the community.”
In the long run, these stories are adding up to visible changes in Red Cloud.
“There’s a domino effect that happens in communities that have adequate childcare,” Hansen said. “One small impact leads to another, then another, until suddenly, everything has changed a little for the better.”
TVCDC’s success could be an inspiration for other rural towns that are facing similar issues. Yet for many, planning this type of project might seem financially out of the picture. Even in Red Cloud, raising the more than $2 million to plan, construct and staff the TVCDC was no easy task. But community leaders had an ace up their sleeve that ultimately helped make TVCDC a reality: strong community support.
“Our citizens knew that this was a worthwhile cause, so it was a project the whole town could get behind,” Robinson said. “When you have that kind of support — when the town believes that what you’re doing is truly meaningful — that makes it easier to find financial support.”
Red Cloud was able to raise funding for TVCDC by engaging the support of local donors, businesses and community organizations, such as the Red Cloud Community Foundation Fund and the Nebraska Community Foundation. But they also found a major source of support in the form of a Community Development Block Grant from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development (DED).
“We received help from the CBDG program early on, and it provided a big boost in our fundraising efforts, while the application process also gave us some direction,” Hansen said. “Without support from the CDBG program, it would have been much more difficult to make this project a reality.”
CDBG grants originate from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and are administered in Nebraska by DED. The grants’ sole purpose is to help communities like Red Cloud complete projects that create a better quality of life. Steve Charleston, who manages the CDBG program at DED, said he has seen, time and again, instances where towns were able to harness CDBG grants to offset the financial impact of much-needed community improvement projects.
“We’ve seen communities accomplish what they originally thought wasn’t in the realm of possibility by accessing CDBG grants,” Charleston said. “From housing, to downtown revitalization to public works improvements. I greatly encourage any community with a project need to visit the DED website or contact our agency for more information about the program.”
Today, 80 children are enrolled at TVCDC. Robinson said she believes that number will keep climbing year after year.
“This is something Red Cloud needed for the future,” she said. “It took a lot of focus and determination, but the community was able to come together and make it happen. I think this is something that other communities can look at and say, ‘that’s us, we need this.’ I would say it’s something more than worthwhile. It is a future for Red Cloud.”