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Bolstering Early Childhood Care in Douglas County

(This piece was first posted in the Lawrence Times, April 2, 2024) You might not have noticed it, but big things are happening with Lawrence’s littlest learners.

Will Averill and Kim Polson standing with architectural renderings at the new Community Children's Center at 346 Maine Street.
A Bright Future for Early Childhood in Douglas County!

On Thursday, Gov. Laura Kelly was on hand for the groundbreaking of the Ballard Center’s new expansion, which will provide sensory rooms to support their neurodivergent students, more space for their clothing and food pantry and additional resources for their family stabilization program.

It’s a massive step for early childhood in Douglas County and a huge step for the Ballard, which has been a stabilizing family force in North Lawrence since 1965. This visit is the second time the governor has come to Lawrence in the last six months to recognize advances in early childhood care — in November, we were lucky to have her at the Community Children’s Center (CCC) groundbreaking for our upcoming early childhood community center.

Early childhood care is more than a personal and family issue; fundamentally, it affects the entire community. In the past decades, the cost of early childhood care has soared, nearing the cost of college in-state tuition. Parents leave the workforce because staying home and caring for their infants is cheaper than putting them in care. 

Early childhood care providers work wonders with almost nothing — they aren’t able to charge more because parents can’t afford to pay more, and many work for below-minimum-wage incomes and no benefits. This scarcity makes educational necessities like downtime, continuing education, and sick days impossible and impractical, so the quality of early education suffers. This struggle is not the providers’ fault; they are constantly at the edge of their capacity and doing their best, but we would need almost 3,000 new early childhood care spots to open up to cover all the needs in Douglas County.

Early childhood care becomes a business development issue when people drop out of the workforce to care for their children or take repeated sick days and time off to cover care. COVID-19 made many evaluate their work-life balance and made hiring and retention more competitive for companies. Benefits such as child care subsidies have started to become a standard part of packages at larger companies, many of which set up their care centers to boost retention in their organizations.

High-quality care is vital as in the first few years of life, children build more than a million new neural networks every second, and the rate of growth and learning is massive. Active engagement and focus on skill building and developmental milestones can significantly impact a child’s life, future educational opportunities and lifetime earnings. We have the chance, as a community, to set our children up for a better life.

So, if parents can’t pay more, and providers can’t charge less, how do we fix the problem of early childhood care?

We can continue to include early childhood priorities and voices in our city planning as a community and a business development opportunity. We can support our current early childhood care providers through individual, city, county, state, and federal financial support.

We can encourage businesses to consider early childhood care subsidies as a benefit to their employees. We can ask lawmakers to make it possible to provide care professionals with health care and retirement options through the state. Finally, we can celebrate, recognize, and promote innovative organizations and providers in their work.

If you’d like to learn more about CCC’s early childhood community center, please get in touch with us. We’d love to give you a tour and show you how we work with other amazing organizations in our community, like Ballard, to build stronger families, achieve better outcomes, and provide lifelong opportunities to Douglas County’s littlest learners.

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