Leelanau News and Events

Meet The Leaders Working To Fix Leelanau's Child Care Crisis

By Emily Tyra | July 14, 2021

Movers, shakers and difference-makers are working to fix the early childhood care crisis in Leelanau County. Families are facing a critical shortage of infant and toddler childcare, particularly in the wake of program closures in Northport, Suttons Bay, and Leland over the past two years. On the flipside, a glimmer of good news came for those with children ages three to five: The nonprofit Leelanau Children’s Center announced last week an increased capacity for the 2021/2022 school year, jumping from 30 to 42 students.

Several local committees are at work on the childcare challenge, attempting to incentivize the development of an increased provider base and working with state representatives to improve support for families and providers. The Leelanau Ticker checked in with a handful of those closest to the initiatives. Here they share what solutions are here now — and on the horizon — for Leelanau families and what those may mean for the community overall.

Heidi Kruse, Leelanau Early Childhood Development Commission (LECDC); Leelanau Peninsula Economic Foundation (LPEF) Early Childhood Committee; Infant Toddler Collaborative Review Group; Executive Director of Leelanau Children’s Center
Biggest need in the county? Infant toddler care is right up there! [In February 2021], we had to eliminate our toddler program [at Leelanau Children’s Center] because it was too costly. State mandated staffing regulations for centers make the cost of providing services much higher than the revenue produced through tuition. Programs are going underwater. But just because we got out of that business does not mean we are not passionate about solving this.
Any steps forward? So many positive things are happening around early childhood in Leelanau County. One of the big things is that we [LECDC] are applying for a $300K grant from the Early Childhood Innovation Commission for our Infant Toddler Collaborative. The grant will provide, in part, startup funds for providers to create their own home-based childcare business.
This grant is significant, but even if we don’t get it, we’d like a way to provide funds for those providers to pay for things like fingerprinting, modifications to their home, all the cumbersome requirements to get licensing. Then we can help provide the quality piece: through mentors and helpers from the Leelanau Children’s Center, and a shared services network for things on the back end — like billing — for a small fee. LECDC is actively recruiting potential home care providers in the county.
Numbers or stats that might surprise readers? The lack of quality childcare was listed as a top three concern of Leelanau business owners in a countywide survey conducted by the Leelanau Peninsula Economic Foundation (LPEF), right behind affordable housing and sufficient quality workforce. And they are all interconnected. We can’t get people back to work if there is not affordable childcare. Another: it can take up to $10,000 to start a home-based childcare business. Providers need seed money that’s not coming from their own checking accounts. Especially when, ultimately, they aren’t making huge amounts of money.
What would be a game-changer? Including businesses as part of the solution, and to recognize them for that. One idea is for an existing business nonprofit, such as the LPEF, to help create a program designed for businesses to fund — in part or full — care for their workers’ as well as the communities’ children. Also, we find out about the $300K Infant Toddler Collaborative grant September 15, but we’d also like to also create a channel for businesses to donate seed money for those starting a home care business in the county. I believe strongly that businesses, if they want to help create a brighter future for families and county business — if they want servers and to be open for lunch; or to not be closed two days a week — they must step up to help subsidize all childcare in the county.

Sue Miller, League of Women Voters Leelanau County Early Childhood Needs and Service Committee Chair; Early Childhood Legislative Interest Group Chair; Infant Toddler Collaborative Review Group Member
Any recent triumphs? [After the passage of the hotly debated 2019 Leelanau Early Childhood millage] starting to deliver services as the pandemic began was a challenge for the Parenting Communities community service workers. However, they figured out how to connect with families virtually, via Zoom or phone, or with “porch visits” and began to assist in meeting their needs, including those related to the pandemic.
Underlying challenges families face? More poverty than many residents could imagine. The Michigan League for Public Policy, 2020, found that seven percent of Leelanau County children under the age of 18 are living below the poverty level. 18.6 percent of single parent families in the county are living in poverty. [Meanwhile], the average cost of full-time childcare per month per child for Leelanau families is 38.8 of the full-time minimum wage. 
A game-changer for Leelanau County? It began with county residents’ support for early childhood services in the 2019 millage approval. There’s widespread recognition that our young children and their families are essential to our county’s current viability and its future. Although a large number of county residents are retirees, including myself, we support our community by valuing all our residents and recognizing and addressing the challenges that many face. If we want to maintain a diversity of residents across the full age spectrum, from birth through our last years, we need to support that. 

Seth Johnson, Executive Director, United Way of Northwest Michigan; Infant Toddler Collaborative Review Group; Early Childhood Innovative Action Planning; Father of Two-Year-Old Daughter
What underlying challenge are families facing? Families are really stuck right now…often having to drive long distances for care or making other sacrifices to get into a rarely open and available slot. 
Biggest need right now? Policy change from Lansing. We need to find ways to make the care more affordable for families in our region, we need to find a way to have the business model make sense for these providers and we need compensate those who care for our children in our community at a higher rate.
Any solutions? The solution I am most excited about is MI Tri-Share pilot program [between United Way of Northwest Michigan, the Great Start Collaborative Traverse Bay and 5toOne]. The idea is to split the cost of childcare between the state, employers and families. It is an innovative approach to increasing access to high quality, affordable childcare for working families in our region. We believe that Tri-Share will help employers retain talent and remove one barrier to employment. We have begun working with companies in the region [including in Leelanau County] on this and are looking forward to signing our first families up in the coming weeks. 

Sarah Johnson, Great Start to Readiness Program, Suttons Bay Schools; Leelanau Peninsula Economic Foundation (LPEF) Early Childhood Committee Member; League of Women Voters Leelanau County (LWVLC) Early Childhood Needs and Service Committee; Early Childhood Legislative Interest Group; Infant Toddler Collaborative Review Group; Parenting Communities Advisory Committee
Recent triumph? Consistent funding for the Parenting Communities program is a huge positive step supporting the health and well-being of Leelanau County children and families. Leelanau County is 91 percent rural, and lots of young families don’t have family nearby which can be really lonely if you're caring for young children. Playgroups and home visits are a great way for all families to feel a little less isolated, a little less lonely. Knowing where to go for immunizations, breastfeeding support, or mental health needs is comforting. Having a home visitor share developmental milestones for your child is validating. Chatting with another dad, grandma or mother about potty training challenges is important!
Underlying challenges? It’s a broken record, regionally, across the state and nation, but housing and childcare is particularly challenging in Leelanau County. I recently talked to a mom who was given 30-days notice to move. The family has four kids, their apartment was sold and is going to be remodeled for an Airbnb. Trying to find housing for a family of six in summer in Northern Michigan is impossible, and their immediate plan was a camper. 
Childcare, especially for infants and toddlers, is expensive and childcare subsidies are low. Personally, I think we’d be smarter to provide a year of subsidy if needed for a parent to stay home and care for the new baby.
An initiative you have seen first-hand has made a real difference? (Disclaimer: I worked on the state committee on the original Great Start design, and now teach in a Great Start classroom in Suttons Bay!) Great Start is the Department of Education program for four-year-olds…that provides a free year of pre-kindergarten for eligible children. The Great Start to Readiness Program (GSRP) can have a dramatic impact and data shows Great Start kids have a head start in school and life-long benefits. In our rural county, we have lots of kids that have not spent lots of time in groups, who have limited experience out of home. Great Start has classrooms at Benodjhen and the Leelanau Children’s Centers, and Glen Lake and Suttons Bay Schools.

Photo: On the playground at Leelanau Children’s Center this spring.

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