Martinsville, Va. — Building a strong childcare system in Martinsville-Henry County affects more than just the lives of parents and their children — it’s a Workforce Foundation for the community.
When every parent has access to quality and affordable childcare, employers have a larger hiring pool to grow their businesses. Quality childcare increases the number of children who start school ready to learn, which decreases the school system’s burden and improves educational attainment. It’s part of the bigger picture that allows the economy to grow and prosper — making the community enticing to businesses and people who want to relocate here, while also giving residents a sense of pride in their hometown.
In 2019, the Martinsville-Henry County area experienced the lowest unemployment rate it had seen in 20 years, but according to Sheryl Agee, senior operating officer at The Harvest Foundation, that brought with it some new challenges.
“For several years, Harvest worked with partners in MHC on economic development resulting in new jobs and industry to the area,” said Agee. “But as workforce demands increased, we began to see another gap – a shortage of affordable quality childcare, especially for moderate and low-income families, which hindered their economic mobility. We convened community organizations, businesses and experts in the field to talk about possible solutions and strategies to build a system that could support everyone.”
Four areas of focus were identified that include: costs of childcare; centralized information for parents and parental engagement; early childhood workforce, and; additional childcare capacity in convenient geographic locations.
A roadmap was developed to tackle barriers within the system, and the group identified funding sources to start the work, securing federal funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) in late 2020 to begin implementing their Workforce Foundations project.
Local barriers to care
The key to accessible childcare in Martinsville-Henry County is the availability, quality, affordability, and proximity of local care for working parents. Obstacles to childcare are especially difficult for low-income parents, those with infants, and parents who have children with special needs.
Philip Wenkstern, executive director of United Way of Henry County and Martinsville, said United Way and Smart Beginnings Martinsville-Henry use a two-generational approach when working with local families by directly engaging the child as well as the parents.
“It’s important to get children from birth to age five enrolled in childcare at some point because they’re able to socialize and be provided a developmentally appropriate curriculum that’s going to help them be ready to learn when they reach kindergarten,” Wenkstern said.
“Having a stable home for children is essential for the development of a child,” Wenkstern added. “We want to ensure that parents are stable enough to gain employment, but make sure they have access to resources that ensure a happy, healthy home for their children.”
Wenkstern said they’re working to tackle local barriers to care that include a lack of available infant slots, lack of special needs care, and a lack of facilities that offer after-hours care and weekend care.
According to the Department of Social Services’ facilities database, only one of Martinsville-Henry County’s 16 registered childcare providers offers after-hours care. If parents get jobs that are in the service industry or don’t have traditional 9-5 working hours, Wenkstern said, that’s a barrier they likely won’t be able to address.
“They won’t be able to enter the workforce to help our local economy, they won’t pay taxes, contribute to the local school systems and local government, so it’s a chain of cause and effects that impact the entire community,” he said.
One goal of the ARC Workforce Foundations project is looking at increased capacity and increased quality.
Melanie McLarty, director of Smart Beginnings Martinsville-Henry, said the project will not only strengthen the existing system, but grow a new network of childcare businesses.
“The plan provides an opportunity for us to take a deeper dive within existing programs, offering expertise and training,” she said. “It also opens the doors to those who are interested in starting new businesses in our community. It’s a win-win for everyone — especially our childcare providers and our families.”
The grant is providing support for small childcare centers, meaning a lower initial investment, and will primarily look at home providers. Wenkstern said they’re hoping to establish these centers in areas of the community that don’t have access to childcare right now.
Workforce Foundations will lessen immediate burdens on providers by reducing the risk on someone who is trying to open a childcare center with forgivable microloans. Many existing childcare centers are reluctant to try and expand their services because the centers operate on such narrow margins.
“If centers try to add a classroom or extend hours, they’re not going to be at capacity right off the bat,” Wenkstern said. “If you’re not at capacity, you’re losing money. This grant will provide them a window of opportunity to try and pilot that approach — to try extended hours, try being open on a Saturday, try having a special needs classroom or try infant care. And for three months while they’re recruiting, it doesn’t matter if classes are full. They’re not losing money because these grant funds are softening the impact.”
The ARC project, Workforce Foundations, also offers scholarships for students at Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) who want to work in the early childhood sector.
“Providers typically will need those credentials or certifications to have a successful business,” Wenkstern said. “The Virginia Quality Rating and Improvement System assesses the quality of local childcare centers and part of what goes into that rating are the credentials of staff at the center.”
Scholarships totaling nearly $10,000 have been distributed to more than 20 students at PHCC in the early childhood education program. Wenkstern said another round of scholarships will be distributed this summer.
“It doesn’t matter how many expansions of existing programs we have within the system or how many new providers we add if you can’t get qualified staff to work in our community,” McLarty said. “Everything will suffer if we can’t strengthen our workforce. Providers won’t be able to expand and some will close. Having a qualified workforce is a huge part of a successful childcare system. We’re excited about that component of the work that will ensure students in local early childhood programs have the assistance they need to continue their education and hopefully stay in Martinsville-Henry County to work within our childcare programs.”
Eight childcare providers have applied for expanded services grants through the project so far. Wenkstern said they’re connecting them to resources such as Michael Scales at the Longwood Small Business Development Center to provide additional training because they’re focusing on long-term sustainability.
“We don’t want to provide the money for expansion and when it’s exhausted, the class goes away,” Wenkstern said. “Michael Scales and his background in business development will help providers put a plan together so any expansions are able to be sustained after the grant.”
Wenkstern said the need for additional business planning is not unique or isolated to childcare — it’s seen in many service-oriented businesses.
“If you’re going to medical school or law school, they’re teaching you to be a lawyer or a doctor, they’re not teaching you how to run a business,” he said. “Having an expert like Michael to sit down with them, particularly with new business owners, and make sure they know their business plan is important. Is it actually going to work the way they think it will? It will help providers protect themselves against a lot of mistakes in the long run, and hopefully some heartbreak. We’re not ignorant to the fact that more than half of business startups fail within the first three years, and we certainly don’t want to see that within our childcare sector.”
One of the applicants is adding a special needs classroom, Wenkstern said. Others are looking at expanded hours — staying open until 7 p.m. or being open on a Saturday. No applications have been submitted for infant care, but Wenkstern said he hopes to see that moving forward. These expansions should be in place by mid-summer, he said. The next step is working toward new childcare center openings, which is expected to take longer than expanding existing centers.
Future of childcare
“With the onset of COVID-19 pandemic,” Wenkstern said, “we saw how important our childcare system is with the closing of schools and some childcare providers. Thankfully we weren’t as impacted locally in Martinsville-Henry County, but a lot of other areas were. The economy is really dependent on those systems working well. If that gets clogged up, everything else gets clogged up.”
Wenkstern said it all comes down to providing a quality, safe environment that’s accessible and one that meets the needs of parents and children in the community.
McLarty said her dream is for all parents to have access to affordable and quality childcare no matter their income level, ability to pay or geographic location. She also said the hiring of a childcare business development coordinator makes all the difference in moving the local system forward.
“The ability to now have a full-time staff person dedicated to childcare business development is a real asset to Smart Beginnings and our community,” McLarty said. “They are a consistent, community liaison for the childcare community, and we needed someone completely dedicated to that work. We’ve made a lot of progress to have just started. And there’s a lot of work to be done.”
It all starts with improving our educational attainment that builds a strong foundation for our community, said Kate Keller, president of The Harvest Foundation.
“We are committed to this work as we value education and believe that quality childcare is not only a foundational need for our workforce, but an early building block for our children’s education,” she said. “Education is the key that can unlock a brighter future for everyone, so we have to get this right.”
Photo: During a meeting in October 2019, smaller workgroups tackled specific projects within the larger scope of building a stronger childcare system in Martinsville-Henry County. Pictured from left are Nancy Kennett with Monogram Snacks, Ruth Anne Collins of Smart Beginnings, Denise Fultz of Henry County Schools, and Sheryl Agee, senior operating officer at Harvest Foundation.