Photo: ribbon-cutting at Stick Creek Kids Child Development Center


The atmosphere was one of spring fun, soon-to-be-summer excitement and more than a few relieved parents as Lieutenant Governor Mike Foley joined grown-ups and kids alike in Wood River last Saturday to dedicate and tour the new Stick Creek Kids Child Development Center.

“This is an achievement made possible by years of hard work and dedication on the part of citizens and community leaders, who recognized a crucial need for quality childcare in their region and decided to act,” said Lt. Gov. Foley. “They’ve not only addressed that need, but have created a facility where parents can feel both comfortable and proud to enroll their children. Our congratulations go out to Wood River for this momentous achievement, which will serve families for years and decades to come.”

Sara Arnett is a board member for Wood River Vision 2020 — one of the groups responsible for bringing Stick Creek Kids to life. She was on hand Saturday to greet eager families and showcase some of the 12,500 square foot facility’s key features, which are sure to appeal to the target audience.

“This was a really exciting day because it’s an achievement Wood River and everyone involved has been working toward for a long time, and one that fulfills a big need for families in the region,” Arnett said.

It all started in 2013, when local volunteers formed a group, Wood River Vision 2020, Inc., to identify and address local needs. It would eventually become a full-fledged nonprofit 501c3, with a mission to tackle challenges and create a long-term plan for the community’s development.

“One of the issues that kept coming to the forefront during our outreach was childcare availability,” said Tyler Doane, Wood River Vision Board Chair.

Guided by community surveys, Vision 2020 applied for Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding in 2018 from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development (DED), with the intention of building a nonprofit child development center. That CDBG award would eventually help fund the since-finished construction.

“This project really couldn’t have happened without CDBG or the over 150 other grants and private donations that lifted it off the ground,” Doane said, citing assistance from the Grace and Donna Rae Koepp Foundation, the USDA and others. South Central Economic Development District (SCEDD) and the City of Wood River were vital partners from the get-go, with the former playing an instrumental role in grant writing and administration, and the latter providing various forms of financial and other assistance.

“We’ve been enthusiastic about working with Wood River from the very beginning to make this project a reality, because quality child care availability is something that has been a huge gap in our service area,” said SCEDD Community Consultant Lori Ferguson. “When you think about what it means for families, it’s also something that has a huge ripple effect economically. With quality childcare available, employers are able to attract prospective employees. We hear stories of employers unable to fill positions because potential employees decline job offers when they can’t find quality childcare for their families. So we were really proud and incredibly excited on Saturday to see so much hard work and the fruits of this collaboration come to fruition.”

It wasn’t long before Vision 2020’s plans for a new, 5,400 square foot child care facility had at last begun to take shape. By 2019, the momentum was in full swing.

Then, the bomb cyclone struck.

“That made quite a dent in our plans, but ultimately for the better,” Arnett said.

When the flooding resulted in Wood River’s Good Samaritan nursing home being closed and put up for sale, Vision 2020 found the bargain too hard to refuse, and bought the building.

“So that’s how we went from designing a 5,400 square foot new facility to brainstorming how to turn a 24,000 square foot former nursing home into a child care center,” she said.

With a larger facility came added room for amenities: separate rooms for different age groups, a full kitchen, even an indoor playground.

Then of course, there were the grounds. The glorious grounds.

“We were big on the concept of free and imaginative play, and this setting was ideal for creating a natural playground,” explained Stick Creek Kids Board Chair Elizabeth Troyer-Miller.

Designed alongside early childhood development experts from University of Nebraska Extension, Stick Creek Kids’ natural outdoor playground is pure imagination fuel: full of stumps, rocks and native plants; a climbing hill with a tunnel through it; the occasional bug; a music wall; and of course, your standard “mud kitchen.”

There’s also a Farm-to-Table Garden, where kids can learn about the land and the origins of the food they eat. Where they can grow real strawberries, peas, carrots and crisp clumps of lettuce. Where fruits and veggies will make their way into a fully-staffed kitchen to become the basis for healthy meals and snacks. And where what’s left uneaten can be sent home in backpacks.

“Both those elements, the playground and the garden, support one of our goals to keep kids active and combat childhood obesity, while stimulating their mental and social-emotional development,” Troyer-Miller said.

In fact, you could make the argument that Stick Creek Kids Child Development Center is anything but a daycare. Rather, it’s an intricately-planned … well … development center, where just about every detail is guided by research on nurturing kids into happy, healthy adulthood.

Speaking of happy adults? Arguably one of the best features on debut Saturday wasn’t something you can explore, taste, see, smell or even make a mess with (gasp!). But it’s something parents are sure to appreciate.

“We’ve partnered with the school district to offer transportation back and forth from our facility and school,” said Kristine VanHoosen, Stick Creek Kids Director.

Let’s say you’re a parent who leaves for work at 7:15? Now, you can drop your child off at Stick Creek Kids along the way, with the school bus taking care of the rest. This goes for preschoolers, too, who are only in school for half the day. Arnett says similar arrangements will be available for the district’s summer school program. Stick Creek is offering numerous summer camps, too.

“Wood River is between Hastings, Kearney and Grand Island, with tons of commuting traffic each way, so we’re excited to be servicing not just one community but the entire region,” Arnett said.

Speaking of region … what about the name, Stick Creek Kids?

“When I was growing up, neighboring towns called the Wood River ‘Stick Creek.’ So we rolled with it,” she explained.

Now, the only thing left is to decide what will become of the other 12,500 square feet of nursing home that remain unused. For that, Vision 2020 has received a Planning grant through DED’s Civic and Community Financing Fund (CCCFF), which will help it explore various options.

Until then, there’ll be plenty happening on the Stick Creek side of the building — whether it’s bug catching, stump hopping, or even the occasional making of a mud pie. Oh, yeah, there’ll plenty of learning, too.

It’s enough to make kids and parents pretty happy campers.