Child care availability in rural Iowa is a big issue. Here's how one community created a solution.
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MONTH FOCUS: CHILD CARE  | ISSUE 4 OF 4  |  12.28.20
Good morning. We’ve made it to the end of 2020 — good riddance! We’ve got a packed edition today. I wrote a piece on the issue of access to child care in rural Iowa and how one community worked together to create a solution — you can read the full version of the story on our website. Rebecca Wolford, the founder of Creative Habitat, has a guest opinion piece and Amanda Shetler, director of development at By Degrees Foundation, has a take on the need for inclusive family leave policies. As usual, we’ve got a lot of other stories from other national and local news outlets that you should check out, too. Lastly, a disclaimer: This newsletter was assembled early because of the extended holiday weekend and may not include news that occurred later in the week. Have a great Monday, and see you next year!
Access to child care in rural Iowa is an issue. Here’s how one woman opened a much-needed center in her town — in the middle of the pandemic.
Exploration & Learning Station in Stuart. Photo by Emily Blobaum.
There is a serious child care crisis in rural Iowa.

There’s the issue of availability. Nearly a quarter of Iowa’s population lives in a child care desert, which is an area where the demand for child care far exceeds the availability of providers and slots.

There’s the issue of affordability. On average, it costs more for a child under 5 to attend full-time child care at a Department of Human Services-licensed center than it costs for in-state tuition at any of Iowa’s regent universities.

Then there’s the issue of quality. As of July 2020, of the 1,354 registered child development homes and licensed child care centers and preschools that participate in the DHS Quality Rating System, only 604 have a level 4 or 5 quality rating.

It’s a bleak picture, but there is progress being made, even during the pandemic.

Stuart — a town of 1,700 good eggs and a few stinkers, per the town’s slogan — is located just north of Interstate 235, nestled in the corner of Guthrie, Adair, Dallas and Madison counties.

It’s a short 40-minute drive to Des Moines from Stuart, making it a prime home base for commuters. It’s one of few rural Iowa communities that are still growing, not shrinking. The chamber of commerce holds its meetings at the Country Kitchen. It’s a small enough town where there are no stoplights, yet big enough to be home to four hotels.

But until two months ago, Stuart had no licensed child care centers for kids under the age of 5.

Exploration & Learning Station director Alicia Geil. Photo by Emily Blobaum.
Alicia Geil has worked with kids for much of her life. She worked at a day care center after she graduated from high school, was a stay-at-home mom for several years, worked at West Central Valley as a special education teacher for 8 1/2 years and provided child care out of her home for two years.

In late 2019, she decided it was time to open a licensed center. She had been talking with other child care providers in the area and knew there was a severe lack of available spots.

Child care is hard to come by in the area. Within a 10-mile radius of Stuart, there are only 13 child care providers. That may sound like a lot, but only three of them are licensed centers, one of which is down the road in Earlham and rarely has openings, and one is only for kids ages 5 and up. The other is Geil’s. The rest are run out of homes, which have strict limitations on capacity.

"I had so many people calling me, I just couldn’t help them," Geil said. "The limits on how many kids you can have, especially kids under the age of 2 is very, very small."

In January, Geil reached out to contacts at Child Care Resource & Referral and the region’s DHS licensing agent to get the process started.

She approached the Stuart Enterprise for Economic Development (SEED), which had been discussing the need for a child care center in the city for the last decade, about a vacant building at 116 N. Division St., once home to Farmers Mutual Fire Insurance. SEED bought the building in the spring, and from there Geil got to work.

She hired Dan Levi and Mary Janssen, both co-founders of the Black Hawk County Child Care Coalition, to inspect the building for necessary renovations needed to comply with DHS regulations. Levi, who also owns an architecture firm that specializes in child care center design, said fortunately the renovations needed were minimal. All the building needed was the addition of an exterior door and a slight reconfiguration of the interior.

After a few pandemic-related delays regarding architectural plan approvals and fire marshal inspections, Exploration & Learning Station opened its doors on Oct. 12.

Including Geil, Exploration & Learning Station has six full-time and three part-time employees. Capacity is set at 30 kids, and as of now she has 18.

The praise she earned was extensive.

"She’s very brave," Dawn Oliver Wiand, president and CEO of the Iowa Women’s Foundation, said. "Revenues are down for centers because of attendance, and costs are up because of the PPE they have to buy. So to make that kind of commitment that shows, one, you’re brave and two, you’re dedicated and really want to make sure that there’s going to be available child care when everybody gets back to work."

From Deb Martens, Child Care Resource & Referral program director for southwest Iowa: "The importance of Alicia opening in the pandemic just shows what a leader she is. She had a vision and a mission. Those are the successful persons that open a child care center."

"Communities need champions like Alicia," Levi said.

The 2-year-old room at Exploration & Learning Station. Photo by Emily Blobaum.
Key advocates for child care in the state like Oliver Wiand and Martens have worked to reframe the messaging around child care.

Child care is an economic issue, Martens said. "If you want families to stay in your rural communities, you need to have resources, and child care is a building block of the community. It’s foundational."

Martens said that when she first started at Child Care Resource & Referral 18 years ago, it was difficult to convince legislators that child care is an issue they should be focusing on, because they said that their wives stayed home.

"That’s not the situation anymore. Iowa ranks No. 2 or No. 3 in the nation for both parents working," she said.

She stresses that everyone — not just current or future parents — needs to care about the issue.

"If you’re an employer, you need to care because you’re definitely going to employ parents. If you’re an economic development specialist in a community or county, you need to care because … we don’t want to see the exodus of families. We don’t want to see the brain drain. Why should legislators care? They need constituents and citizens that are hardworking and tax-paying."

Martens presented to the economic development board in Stuart way back in 2016 — over breakfast at the Country Kitchen, she remembers — after noticing that folks were seeking school out of the region because they couldn’t find child care.

"School systems die in towns that don’t have child care," Shirley Urich, community development specialist for CCR&R’s southwest Iowa region, added. "You also can’t bring a doctor to town if there’s no child care for their children."

To even further complicate the issue is the challenge of making the child care profession successful. The margins for breaking even on operating a child care center are tight.

"You’re not going to get rich running a child care center," Levi said. "It’s no wonder why people don’t want to start centers. It’s really scary. The operational side is so thin."

Urich said it’s difficult for child care centers to pay their staff at competitive rates. "Their staff is going to go down to Burger King to work because they can make $16 or $17 an hour instead of working in the early childhood field."

In 2019, the median hourly wage for child care workers was $9.20.

"We’ve got to figure out how we can supplement that while not increasing parent fees because parents can’t afford to take on any more," Oliver Wiand said.

Oliver Wiand believes that for child care to be successful, a partnership approach is necessary. "It’s going to take collaboration. The issue is so big that not just one entity — one business, one state government, one nonprofit — is going to be able to address it. It’s going to take a public-private partnership and it’s going to take all of us coming together to address that."

She sees Geil’s launch of the Exploration & Learning Station as an example of a community coming together to make things happen. "That’s what we want to see happen in other communities."

Bringing the village back
I’ve had the distinct privilege of being a mom for six years and the distinct struggle of finding child care for seven. What I initially thought was my unique challenge to access quality, affordable and flexible child care, I now realize is one of the greatest challenges many women will face.

While working full time and expecting my first child, I spent my lunch breaks searching for different child care options that would allow me to maintain my career while also ensuring my child was in a safe, secure and enriching environment. I reached out to multiple providers only to find my name and the birthdate of my unborn child added to yet another waitlist. As my search deepened, I began to weigh the cost of my decisions both financially and personally. Suddenly, no matter how I sliced it, no option was adding up. I went on maternity leave not knowing if I would return.

After my precious son was born, my priorities became clear. I decided I did not want to miss his formative years, and yet I also did not want to put my career on hold. I reached out to my employer to begin negotiating a flexible work schedule while still seeking a flexible child care option. Unfortunately most child care options were full-time and I needed part-time. Ultimately, it didn’t matter because his spot on the waitlists was still buried among other nameless birthdates left by other desperate parents trying to find a way to make ends meet.

Fast-forward a year. I eventually settled on a home day care and returned to work with a flexible schedule that allowed me to continue to grow in my career and even receive a promotion. It seemed I had finally navigated my way to the work-life balance I had worked so hard to achieve … and then we decided to grow our family. Early in my second pregnancy, the writing was on the wall. Even with my promotion, the financial and emotional cost of putting both kids in child care was ultimately not worth the strain on our family. Something had to give, and that something was my job.

Within months of my daughter’s birth, we made the move from Southern California to Des Moines and I was determined to create a new path forward for our family. I was eager to get involved in the community and to serve other moms who had faced the same child care struggles I had. I wanted to create a quality, affordable and flexible child care option for working moms. After doing market research, I quickly learned about the child care gap facing Iowa where demand far outweighed supply.

In March 2018, after many community interviews, brainstorming sessions and viability studies, I started Creative Habitat, a nonprofit coworking and child care program designed to serve women business owners and remote workers with preschool-age children. This solution was designed as a co-op model to help other moms support one another while also partnering with community spaces to offer our programs and services. Creative Habitat was designed to "bring the village back" one community at a time.  

As with any startup, building trust and rapport in the community is key, especially when children are involved. We launched our first pilot program in summer of 2018 with a group of women business owners who were committed to serving as a village of support for one another. They gathered weekly to support each other in business development and child care. Each week, they proved how a nonconventional child care solution can succeed. This community doubled in size the following summer, including the return of all of the families who participated in the pilot program.

This initial success was encouraging and inspired me to keep working through some of the challenges we were facing including lack of funding. While the initial pilot and subsequent program were self-sustaining, it became apparent that growing this vision to meet the greater need would require more community buy-in and grant support. Despite efforts to apply for grants, we received initial feedback requesting more data to prove the model.

Rebecca Wolford is a Gallup-certified strengths coach and co-founder of Creative Habitat, a local nonprofit designed to provide a nurturing environment for families to work, play and grow in a community through coworking and child care and strengths-based development programming and services. She can be contacted at

Left: Supply Hive co-founder Zakariyah Hill. Photo by Kelsey Kremer/Des Moines Register. Center: Polk County Health Director Helen Eddy. Photo by Emily Blobaum/dsm magazine. Right: Mariannette Miller-Meeks. Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa PBS.
In the headlines
Worth consuming
Ten pieces of women-focused good news you might have missed (or forgotten about) this year (The Lily). Women leaders share 8 ways to rebuild a better world (Forbes). For the first time, there's a woman on every S&P 500 board. But they're still in the minority (CNN Business). You’ve probably seen the Year in Pictures from the New York Times and Washington Post already. Here’s a collection of images from female and nonbinary photographers (Women Photograph). Americans were told to stay home. Black women are most at risk of losing theirs (The 19th). How to fix America’s child care crisis (Tilted podcast). ‘There are still so many women who think that menopause is the end of your life’ (New York Times OpDocs).
All in the family: Expanding our understanding of family leave policies
I don’t have children but I was a child once, and as a child I watched my mother care for her oldest sister, my aunt, during her final year of life. The converging paths of child care and dying-sister-care were not easy roads to walk, but my mother had to walk them. To this day, she says that year would have been impossible had she been employed. And we were lucky; my father worked so my mother could care for her family, in all its complexity.

We are the only industrialized country that does not have a national paid family leave policy. For working Americans, this means the right to paid family leave is determined by employers. Most often, "family" leave is interpreted as "parental" leave, and even then, it's most associated with caring for a new child. But families are diverse, and as children grow and relatives age, the need for family leave expands.

According to the nonprofit Paid Leave for the United States, 60% of caregivers change their professional lives — by cutting hours, changing jobs or leaving employment altogether — to accommodate their caregiving responsibilities. And with 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day, 1 in 6 people spend an average of 20 hours per week caring for an aging relative or a relative with disabilities.

In the absence of a national paid family leave policy, employers should recognize the complexities of and diversity within families, including those with infants, school-aged children, aging or ill relatives, relatives with disabilities, same-sex partnerships and single parenthood, among others. And while offering expansive and inclusive paid family leave is simply the right thing to do, it also makes economic sense. Paid Leave for the United States found that providing 26 weeks of paid leave would increase U.S. women’s labor force participation by $900 billion annually, a 5% increase in GDP.

Families, like America itself, are diverse. Expansive, inclusive and flexible paid family leave is essential in developing our greatest national resource: our people.

Amanda Shetler is the director of development for the By Degrees Foundation. She is a 2019 graduate of the One Iowa LGBTQ Leadership Institute and a 2020 graduate of the Community Leadership Program.

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