With millions in ARPA funds, Early Childhood Community Center intends to become ‘early-childhood safety net’ for Douglas County

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

The Community Children's Center's Early Childhood Community Center will eventually be located at 346 Maine St., currently the Medical Arts Building & Pharmacy.

When the Community Children’s Center’s Early Childhood Community Center is eventually complete, the agency’s executive director, Kim Polson, hopes it will be a key component in an “early-childhood safety net” for Douglas County.

The Community Children’s Center — an agency dedicated to identifying gaps in early-childhood services in the county and coming up with strategic ways to fill them — is one of 14 agencies that was ultimately selected to receive a portion of the county’s roughly $21 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds. It also was allocated the highest single funding total of any agency at just over $3.6 million.

The vast majority of that amount — $3.25 million — is going toward the Early Childhood Community Center, which Polson told the Journal-World would provide a wide variety of services for children up to 5 years old and their families once it’s complete.

The community center is set to be housed at 346 Maine St., currently the Medical Arts Building & Pharmacy. The building consists of leased spaces occupied by a number of agencies, including Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and, previously, Panda Pediatrics. About half of the building is currently occupied by Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center clinic space, which is set to stay as is. Polson said the hope was that other tenants currently in the building would also stick around.

The rest of the building, meanwhile, will be renovated and turned into spaces like a primary care clinic and day care classrooms. And that’s not all, Polson said; the community center will provide a broad swath of services, including acting as a “business incubator” for producing new licensed child-care providers in the community and a family resource center for parents and guardians who need assistance navigating social services. There will even be such resources as an indoor playground space and a free community store for distributing early-childhood and maternity items.

It’s all part of a four-pronged model that consists of the aforementioned early-childhood professional support network for new child-care providers and the family resource center, plus providing additional child-care and education resources both in the building and out in the community.

The community center, as a whole, is intended to be very collaborative, Polson said. The family resource center is one such example.

“What we envision happening is within the space of the Early Childhood Community Center that we’ll have another access point for families to get to these supports that they need,” Polson said. “For example, collaborative relationships with Bert Nash, with Just Food, with LMH (Health), with Heartland Community Health Center — ways in which we can give them another way to meet families where they are.”

The fourth component of the approach lies in advocating for “family-friendly workplaces,” employers who provide paid parental leave or child-care service benefits, among a range of other employer-provided forms of assistance for parents.

The wide variety of resources to be housed inside the community center is intended to cover a lot of ground, and Polson said that’s in large part because of how their outcomes are intrinsically tied to one another.

“If we can increase high-quality childcare capacity at an affordable rate and we can increase family-friendly workplace practices across our community, those two things, hand in hand, go a long was toward solving a lot of the challenges that we’re facing right now with the child-care crisis,” Polson said.

The child-care crisis Polson refers to illustrates the need for a resource like the Early Childhood Community Center in Douglas County. Polson said recent data indicates that there’s a potential need for nearly 3,000 slots of early-childhood care service that simply don’t exist right now.

That potential demand would be exacerbated if every parent who isn’t working now decided to enter the workforce at once. Then, out of 100 children, there’d only be spots for 47 of them with licensed child-care facilities, Polson said, based on the extent to which child-care providers’ desired capacity — that is, the maximum number of children they’d prefer having in their care at once — meets that potential demand.

There’s also a shortage in child-care openings for children 3 and younger, Polson said; for every one infant or toddler slot, there’s 10 children without a child-care provider waiting to fill it. That’s on top of a general lack of child-care availability for portions of the workforce who may need it during evenings, weekends or overnight, and a rising annual cost of care for an infant, which is now more than $13,000.

“The average cost of care for an infant in Douglas County — more than tuition, fees and books at KU for a year,” Polson said. “… People feel like they’ve been saving for years for their child to go to college and right now they’re being asked to (pay that amount) when their child is 12 months old and they’ve not been saving for child care. They’re behind that eight-ball already.”

The vision for the community center is still in the distance; the Community Children’s Center needs to purchase property at 346 Maine St. first, which Polson said is hopefully taken care of by the end of August, and then find a contractor to work with to begin renovating the space. While ARPA funds will allow the agency to purchase the building outright, they don’t cover the full costs of renovations and furnishing the space.

But when it’s finished, that will only be the first step. Polson said she hoped to see resources like what the Early Childhood Community Center will eventually offer fan out to other areas of Lawrence and Douglas County.

“We’re going to be able to — and need to — reach out across the county,” Polson said. “…We envision needing to do that in Eudora, in Baldwin, further out west and up toward Lecompton — making sure we’ve got (resources) within our community in strategic places where we know there’s a high need, where we know there’s a high number of children under the age of 5, where we know there’s significant poverty or lack of access to transportation and other services that make it difficult to get what you need.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the amount of American Rescue Plan Act funds that went to the Community Children’s Center.


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