The availability of affordable child care is a major barrier for both employees trying to earn a living and employers seeking to hire and retain workers.
The Outdoor Discovery Center is partnering with Gentex to solve that problem for the Zeeland-based manufacturer and its employees. It is one of numerous partnerships the nature nonprofit has in the works.
The Gentex Discovery Preschool will be the first of its kind in the area due, in part, to its extended hours of operation. The center will be open to accommodate the children of both first and second shift workers, with a target capacity of up to 250 children per shift. Gentex plans to offer discounted child care rates as a benefit of employment.
“We continue to seek innovative ways to ensure Gentex is the employer of choice in West Michigan,” says Gentex President and CEO Steve Downing, calling the lack of availability and high cost of child care a barrier to employment. “The subsidized weekly cost for care will be much lower than typical child care rates in the market today.”
Children play at the existing natural playground of Little Hawks Preschool on the Outdoor Discovery Center campus.
Millions in public, private dollars
It has been almost 10 years since the Outdoor Discovery Center first offered its nature-based preschool
. Now, the nature education nonprofit’s preschools have several locations that serve nearly 400 children younger than 5.
The need still outstrips the availability of child care in Ottawa County.
More than 15,000 children in Ottawa County live in homes where all parents are in the workforce, according to the 2021 Community Assessment
by the Greater Ottawa County United Way. However, the study says, the county has only 11,137 licensed child care openings, leaving a significant gap.
The Outdoor Discovery Center has been a prime mover in closing that gap. The nonprofit is working with Ottawa County to use $7.5 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to create 1,000 new child care slots in the county. That money will be matched with $30 million from local business partners, Williams says.
“The goal was to do something transformational,” he says, calling the opportunity the federal money affords “once in a lifetime.”
The county board of commissioners approved the plan last week.
The ODC is also partnering with Stow Co. to move Seedlings Discovery Preschool into the company’s downtown building. The move into the company’s first floor will allow the preschool to expand, including into all-day preschool, something, Williams says, is something working families in the area sorely need.
For the past 2 and a half years, Seedlings found a home at Pillar Church. Demand for child care in the area necessitated expansion, Williams says, and the new location will allow Stow employees easy access to nature-based child care.
An open house 5-7:30 p.m. Dec. 5 will give the public a sneak peak at the expanded Seedlings Discovery Preschool at their new Stow Company location at 130 Central Ave.
“We’re strategically trying to put facilities in more areas of the community too, so they are accessible,” Williams says.
The new Sally Smoly Nature Playscape at Holland’s Window on the Waterfront is the downtown's first play space, and the Outdoor Discovery Center has more planned.
The ODC preschools division will also operate the Gentex child care facility. ODC preschools provide nature-based child care and early childhood education programming. Children spend time outdoors each day, learning through active play and exploration.
“A nature-based education has been found to support a child’s physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development,” says ODC’s CEO Travis Williams. “It also helps instill an appreciation for our natural resources and the need to be caretakers of the world around us. … Quality child care can balance the achievement gap, reduce long-term educational costs, improve health outcomes, and much more.”
Groundbreaking for the Gentex Discovery Preschool is slated for the spring of 2023, with the facility projected to open sometime in 2024.
“If we want to have these transformational changes in the community, we have to rally around it and bring all the resources to the table,” Williams says. “If we want to make our community a place where people want to work and live, child care is a big piece of that.”