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Lack of child care is big area problem

Quality child care is an economic driver

By Sarah Nigbor

ELLSWORTH – One of the biggest challenges facing families in Ellsworth and surrounding communities is access to auordable, trustworthy and convenient child care. The Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce tackled the topic at its most recent luncheon Thursday, April 28.

Rick Bonlender, representing the St. Croix Valley Dream Up! Core Committee, shared information about the area’s child care challenges and provided an overview of the Dream Up! grant. Area stakeholders from across the St. Croix Valley have joined forces to apply for a Dream Up! grant, which is being ouered by the Department of Children and Families. A total of $8.1 million will be awarded to directly support 30 communities and child care programs around Wisconsin over the next two years.

Through the grant, communities will receive strategic planning support and $75,000 in funding to help create new child care businesses, along with enhancing existing provid- ers through expansion, new programs and other ouerings. While child care challenges are felt across the state, more rural areas are among the most strained, according to the DCF. More than 75% of rural zip codes are considered “child care deserts.” For every three kids under age 5, there’s only one child care slot available.

The West Central Wisconsin Child Care Collaborative, which includes members such as Ellsworth Village President Becky Beissel and Superintendent Barry Cain, aims to address the 77-mile circumference of Pierce County and southern St. Croix County, which is statistically considered a child care desert.

Child care is an economic driver for communities, Bonlender said. Not only does investing in early child education help children flourish and grow into productive adults, but it's a key factor in attracting homebuyers to a community. Child

care access auects where people choose to live and work. It's a key factor in families planning to have children or not.

"Lack of quality, auordable child care negatively impacts businesses through the loss of workers and divculty in re cruiting quality employees,” Bonlender said. “Large numbers of women are leaving the workforce or did during the pandemic to care for kids.”

Leaving careers because of lack of quality child care can impact the long-term career advancement and earning potential of employees. Parents who earn less, spend less in their communities, Bonlender pointed out.

It’s not uncommon for child care bills to be as big or bigger than monthly mortgage payments, he pointed out. This results in families relying on family members, who are loving, but not usually trained in early childhood education. Children not in licensed child care centers are sometimes not ready for kindergarten, Bonlender said. The WCWCCC is a collaboration between 30 organizations, including seven businesses, four child care centers, three higher education institutions (Northwood Technical College, UW-Stout and UW-River Falls), three K-12 school districts (Ellsworth, Elmwood and Baldwin-Woodville), Western Wisconsin Health, Pierce County Public Health, the Village of Ellsworth, Spring Valley Public Library and others.

“The need is great, which is how everyone came together so quickly (to apply for the grant),” said Cain. Without expanded housing and child care opportunities, we’re going nowhere.”

Cain shared that many teachers who live and teach in Ellsworth have to take their kids to River Falls or Prescott for child care, then drive back. It’s not a sustainable way to live, he said.

To learn more about the grant, visit dcf.wisconsin.gov/ childcare/projectgrowth/dream-up

May 3, 2022