Ignite Emporia attempts to forge path to state-wide changes in childcare | Gaz


Amid a childcare crisis in Kansas, Ignite Emporia is making great strides to address the needs of Lyon County families — and helping those throughout the state.

Sherry Harrison started her new position as Ignite Emporia director in June of this year. Early into her role, Harrison conducted in-depth questioning around Emporia and Lyon County, especially about the lack of housing. Within that research, another problem arose: the lack of childcare.

“We started hearing from employers that they had people that would like to come to Emporia and work but they could not find housing that they were happy with,” Harrison said. “And of course, there is just a little bit of childcare available and it may not work for them and their situation.”

In a community like Emporia, the need for child care varies widely, Harrison explained. For some, traditional childcare options may work well with their schedules — but for the large manufacturing community, around-the-clock childcare is essential, especially for families that work night or weekend shifts.

According to ChildCare Aware of Kansas, there is only one childcare facility in the county that offers care during evening hours, with no facilities offering overnight or weekend childcare. Additionally, according to Harrison, some programs lack emergency care for children who might be displaced when someone within a care facility tests positive for COVID-19 or is unable to work due to another illness.

For families that work traditional daytime hours, barriers still exist.

Childcare centers, such as the Emporia Community Day Care Center, struggle to find staff to care for children, despite having classroom space available. For home providers, the struggle of making ends meet amid rising prices and long hours has created further challenges. ChildCare Aware of Kansas estimates that a potential 773 children in Lyon County need childcare slots that are not currently available.

“What it comes down to is personnel,” Harrison said. “Finding qualified personnel and being able to pay them … it’s been very hard because they can double their income just about anywhere [in Emporia] as opposed to staying in childcare.”

The weekly cost of childcare has not increased significantly over the years, Harrison explained, especially when compared to increases in other goods and services. In turn, salaries and benefits for childcare providers have also not seen significant increases.

According to ChildCare Aware of Kansas, the average full-time rate for child care in Lyon County currently ranges from $420 to $520 per month. However, the average annual income of childcare providers in Kansas, as of May 2021 is only $23,440.

For Harrison, finding remedies to the childcare crisis involves a lot of moving parts.

“It’s kind of massaging all of these things and trying to get exactly the right fit with all of these organizations as well as the individual people that we are working with,” Harrison said.

Ignite Emporia has been partnering with local organizations and stakeholders, other Kansas communities and even state organizations — hosting child care summits, sharing research, drafting bill proposals and more in an attempt to come to a solution that works for everyone.

“Wage and benefits is something that we have working with METL Coalition, which is Manhattan, Emporia, Topeka and Lawrence,” Harrison said. “We have had maybe four meetings with them since July. What they are doing is taking on issues for legislative action.”

Organizations like METL provide strength in numbers, she added, as Kansas cities strive to make changes throughout the state. Right now, the coalition and locals involved in the process are brainstorming and refining ideas based on community needs, as well as mirroring programs in other states.

“That would help everybody, not just Emporia,” Harrison said.

Ignite has also been in conversations with other entities about opening a facility, but has run into many challenges, such as finding a space that could be renovated — and within the organizations’ budgets.

“It’s two steps forward and one step back. … It doesn’t happen overnight,” she said, “There’s a lot of planning that goes into it. And also each facility has to meet stringent requirements for the state inspection.”

Recently, Simmons Pet Food ran into such a problem, after the manufacturing company withdrew its bid on USD 253’s Maynard Building due to an unexpected and significant increase in cost. Simmons’ purchase bid of the Maynard Building was $250,000, however, after a due diligence inspection, the company said the purchase and renovation cost increased to $3 million.

“That [was] a big eye-opener as well,” Harrison said.

However, despite the hurdles, Harrison said the childcare community is seeing change on a smaller level, as more and more in-home daycares pop up across Lyon County.

Additionally, Ignite Emporia is in talks with national providers about helping to establish a center and partnering with organizations to make it available to the public.

“Emporia’s at a unique level, population-wise, even within the county,” she said. “We’re not real small but yet we’re just not quite big enough on some demographic basis. We are right on the edge of being able to attract more of the large, national chains to open a childcare center here.”

As for the state-wide picture, Harrison said she hopes to have the state’s ear on this issue. So far, working with the Kelly administration has been very successful.

“Kansas is very concerned about childcare,” Harrison said. “ … We are looking forward to that continuing as we present some solutions for some bigger issues that could benefit everyone, not just Lyon County or Emporia.”

In the meantime, Ignite Emporia will be working through more issues related to the childcare crisis at another meeting on Feb. 1. Harrison said the meeting will be held both on Zoom and in person. The Gazette will release more information about the meeting as it becomes available.

“It’s just good to see a lot of people jumping in to work together and offer help,” she added. “That’s what it definitely takes. It definitely takes the entire community working together and understanding that it impacts all of us.”

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