Yampa Valley Kids persists through early hiccups

Samantha Wilson, the director and founder of Yampa Valley Kids, sits inside the lobby of the new daycare on Barclay Street, which is set to open more spots next week.
Joshua Carney/Craig Press archive

For Yampa Valley Kids, a local day care center that opened in January 2020, the first two years have been a learning curve.

Samantha Wilson opened Yampa Valley Kids after she had three day care providers fall through for her own family and saw there was a gaping need.

“Right now, we are designated a child care desert by the state of Colorado,” said Betsy Overton, the director of Connections 4 Kids. “One of our main goals is to increase child care.”

Connections 4 Kids is a nonprofit organization that works to strengthen resources and services for children up to 8 years old, including providing support for day care providers.

Within a month of opening Yampa Valley Kids, all the spots were full, and Wilson expanded the center to add an additional 11 spots by turning the lobby into a toddler classroom. The move grew the center’s capacity from 35 to 44.

“We worked many months with Sam to make this happen, and for her to even be here, even the initial center, was enormous to our community, and what she does is invaluable,” Overton said.

Wilson has put in a lot of work to get the center where it is today, but the journey has not been without some turbulence. There have been a handful of reports from the Colorado Department of Early Childhood, which governs licensing for child care centers, showing violations at Yampa Valley Kids.

“In my mind, a facility becomes licensed to ensure safety and quality care, and Sam has gone through all of the hoops,” said Cristina LaRose, the parent education coordinator for Connections 4 Kids. “And when she first started this process, just like anyone that we’re working to recruit people to open child care centers, it’s all a learning curve.” 

Wilson admitted she had a lot to learn about opening a child care center and said she is the first to own her mistakes. She emphasized that the priority has always been to provide safe and reliable child care for local families. 

Learning curves

The first state inspection stemmed from a complaint from a staff member working at the center at the time and found a violation in the ratio of staff and toddlers 12 to 24 months old in a classroom. Overton said ratio violations are common in child care inspections.

“We post our inspections any time that has happened,” Wilson said. “After that particular inspection, I hand-called every single parent to let them know what had happened and the mistakes that were made. There was not one parent who wasn’t aware of the mistakes that were made. I am very transparent with our inspections.” 

According to Wilson, the ratio violation was due to miscommunication in the pick-up and drop-off times of two toddlers, creating an overlap in the number of toddlers allowed in one room.

Inspection reports for any child care facility, whether it is based in the community or in-home, are posted to the Colorado Shines website, which monitors and provides quality reports for child care facilities. 

“Across the state, if there is a child care center and they have this many kids, there are going to be violations just because of the numbers,” Overton said. “You are going to have more violations in a center than you are in a home … I have been told by a licensing specialist — ‘I will never come to a facility and not find something.’”

The Department of Early Childhood confirmed all violations found during inspections since the center opened have been resolved.

Many violations were for minor infractions like antibacterial hand soap — which is labeled to “keep out of reach of children” — being kept next to a sink where children would have access to it.  

Overton explained that there is a lot involved with licensing, which can scare people off from going through the licensing process even for in-home day cares. The inspections can be intimidating at first, but over time Wilson said she has started to see it as a resource to learn how to handle issues.

“I really like the analogy, that restaurants get health inspections and when they get violations, they learn from them and they correct them,” LaRose said.

Other violations that came up during the inspections involved a lack of documentation for Colorado Bureau of Investigation and FBI backgrounds check and child abuse clearance for staff.

According to Wilson, those pre-employment screenings at one point were taking up to six months to be processed by the state. In some cases, the background checks had been run by the state but not filed into the personnel records. As long as a staff member has two out of the three clearances, they are allowed to work in the classroom. 

Another learning opportunity for Wilson as supervisor was to make time for the administrative requirements. The center has also started using a new tracking system that alerts Wilson when a staff member’s documents or annual training needs to be updated. 

LaRose emphasized that one of the biggest challenges to operating a child care center, especially in rural areas, is finding and retaining qualified staff. 

Who’s in charge?

Another inspection stemmed from a complaint submitted by a former staff member who left within a few weeks of employment to open their own day care and has since been in dispute with both Yampa Valley Kids and Connection 4 Kids.

The inspection found the center did not have a director listed, a requirement for its license. However, since the center opened, Wilson had been working with the state to obtain her director qualifications.

In the interim of Wilson getting director-qualified, other staff were listed in the role. The other allegations in the complaint stated staff members who weren’t hired to serve in a director’s role were listed on the license as director.

Wilson said that ultimately, as facility owner, she was accountable for the operations and all staff working under her. But at the time these complaints occurred, there were no written agreements listing the roles and responsibilities of staff. 

Even though personnel files weren’t on-site to be reviewed the day of the inspection, the state determined these allegations to be unfounded.

“My son had hand, foot and mouth disease that week,” Wilson explained. “I had the files and my computer at home working on them.” 

The issue has since been corrected. Wilson completed her director qualifications and said each employee signs a scope of duties when they are hired to help ensure role clarity and record keeping. 

Gains among the barriers

For Wilson, it was no small feat to keep the center open through the pandemic, and there have been other gains among those challenges. 

Wilson joined a leadership program with a cohort of child care providers, where other professionals can work together to troubleshoot issues with staffing or operations. Wilson said she wished she’d had a professional network like that when she first got going.

Yampa Valley Kids has also gone from a level one to a level two quality rating though Colorado Shines, which is an optional process offered by the state to continually improve quality for centers. 

“It took a lot of work on Sam’s part,” LaRose said, adding that the rating system is something families can look to for high quality child care.

Connections 4 Kids has also helped the center obtain $150,000 in grant funding to expand on its building, which will open up 26 additional spots, increasing capacity from 44 to 70 children. 

Even though the additional spots won’t be open until next week, Wilson said they are already full and there is still a waiting list of about 20 children.

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