KALAMAZOO, MI — The small cubbies, colorful toy blocks and miniature chairs are like those found at other childcare facilities across Michigan.
But what makes The Dreamery in Kalamazoo unique is its location inside an affordable housing development and its around-the-clock care.
As a lullaby floats quietly down from the speakers, babies and toddlers sleep on small cots; it’s afternoon naptime at The Dreamery. But after those children go home to their parents, more will come to be cared for while parents work in the evening or even overnight.
The childcare learning center, which opened in September, provides childcare for parents working first, second and third shifts and 24-hour drop-in services for people needing emergency help, said Tricia Ryan, senior director of improving lives of children.
The Dreamery is the second childcare facility owned and operated by YWCA Kalamazoo, the first of which has been open since the 1980s.
On an average day, The Dreamery serves about 50 children between its regular care and drop-in center, Ryan said. The regular center is open 24 hours Monday through Friday but only day shift during the weekends, she said. The goal is to be a 24/7 operation, but staffing issues are a hurdle center leaders are trying to overcome.
Childcare is a barrier for many parents needing to work, and Ryan said The Dreamery is a way to knock that barrier down.
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And the center is more than just childcare. Children as young as 6 weeks old are nurtured with play-based learning while the “resource room” upfront helps connect parents to other necessary community resources that provide food, housing or even substance abuse counseling, Ryan said.
“Really focusing on the whole child, which is the family, the community and the systems that they have to navigate through,” she said.
It goes beyond lifting the barrier to childcare, said Sandra Calderon-Huezo, family and community liaison.
“It’s not just about lifting the barrier, now you’re being able to create a support system around that family, around other things that they didn’t even know they were going to come here and get assistance for,” she said.
Moving into Kalamazoo’s Edison neighborhood was intentional and an important outreach effort, said Demetrias Wolverton, senior director of social justice and advocacy at YWCA Kalamazoo.
“(Parents) don’t have to sacrifice quality of care,” Wolverton said. “Oftentimes, when you live in neighborhoods where there are concentrations of poverty, when there are large amounts of people of color, who also are living in poverty, when you are a single parent and you have children oftentimes because of other historical oppression and structural racism, quality childcare is not available to you.
“Having childcare facilities that are affordable and accessible for your finances, or your financial constraint, without having to sacrifice the quality of care for your child, I think is the most important thing,” they said.
The Dreamery serves Edison families but also those living under the same roof inside the Creamery, an affordable housing development designed to meet the needs of low- to medium-income families.
“This is a really good idea,” Calderon-Huezo said of the integrated childcare center.
The center’s prominent location on Portage Street is also helpful in bridging the gap between organizations working toward the same goal of a flourishing community. Nearby are a branch of the public library, Urban Alliance and Loaves & Fishes.
Inside, the facility is broken up into five classrooms that can hold up to six children, ages infant to 3, Ryan said.
Unlike the traditional childcare model, the children are not divided by ages but rather are kept together to create a “family dynamic,” Ryan said. Older kids help care for the babies, and siblings are kept together, she said.
The eating area is also more like a family dining room than traditional cafeteria. The children can watch the food be made and ask questions — as both a way to assure food is coming to those who may struggle with food insecurity at home and an educational opportunity to learn about healthy food and cooking.
While the childcare center is located in a busy urban area of Kalamazoo, it was important for staff to bring outdoors to the children. Large windows let sunshine flood inside while an outdoor play area gives kids an opportunity to make music, draw with chalk and enjoy the fresh air.
Another special characteristic of The Dreamery are the demographics of those employed to care for the children. Calderon-Huezo said many men and women of varying ages work the three different shifts to care for babies and toddlers. It was important for the childcare professionals to mirror the community they served, she said.
But they need more staff to become a 24/7 operation, and the YWCA is a great place to work, Ryan said. The shortage of staff is keeping them from providing 24-hour care on the weekends.
More openings would provide for more families stuck on a waiting list for childcare.
Like many others across Kalamazoo, the YWCA’s downtown childcare center and The Dreamery have waiting lists full of families in need, she said. Currently, at The Dreamery, the wait list is more than 130 families.
While its tuition prices are similar to other childcare centers in the area, Ryan said The Dreamery’s efforts to make childcare affordable and accessible set it apart. YWCA staff connect parents with stipends and offer their own tuition assistance to families in need, Ryan said.
Being open 24 hours per day is also a way that The Dreamery is more accessible to families, Calderon-Huezo said.
“We know that we’re going to be able to help more families that have different needs than the traditional childcare setting provides,” she said.
The center’s drop-in services also help families in an emergency, whether its healthcare professionals working through a pandemic at Bronson Methodist Hospital or refugee families connected through Bethany Christian Services, Calderon-Huezo said.
Children benefitting from this accessibility are now waking from their afternoon naps. The lullaby is over and now spilling from the speakers is “The Wheels on the Bus.”
Another set of staff arrive for the evening shift, because at The Dreamery, the doors don’t close.
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