Cassopolis reimagines childcare

Just a few short years ago, Cassopolis was a stagnant community, a ghost town lined with empty storefronts. 

Then the village teamed up with Michigan State University, the Cass County Economic Development Committee and residents to reimagine the Cass County seat — pursuing state and federal grants to receive more than $18 million in funding for projects ranging from improved streetscapes to a new beachfront — creating today’s vibrant community. 

Now, that same reimagining approach is underway to address one of the community’s great needs — childcare— with the gathering of the Imagine Center Community Collab.

“The original Imagine Cass focused only on projects and improvements within the village, but it was centered around collaboration and partnerships,” says Cassopolis Village Manager Emilie LaGrow. “The idea behind the Imagine Center is the same, in that it is also centered around collaboration and partnerships – so it is like an Imagine Cass 2.0 with the exception that we are looking at how this can service all of Cass County; this is not just a village-led project.”

The childcare problem: “Economists indicate that a family should pay no more than 7 percent of their household income on childcare, “says Chanda Hillman, CEO/executive director of Tri-County Head Start, which serves Cass County as well as Berrien and Van Buren counties. “Tri- county families pay on average 37 percent of their household income.”

It’s not just that childcare is unaffordable. The area is a childcare desert, she says, with too few providers to meet needs at any cost. Two-thirds of the 2,500 children aged 5 and under in Cass County do not have access to childcare because there simply aren't enough childcare slots available.

“A recent study showed 34 childcare facilities in Cass County, with a capacity of 892 slots — 15 childcare centers, nine group homes, and 10 family homes,” Hillman says. 

Head Start and Great Start Readiness Program programs are factored into these numbers, though their current hours of operation do not meet the needs of working families. For a program to be sufficient for working families, it needs to operate at least 10 hours per day, Monday through Friday; Head Start operates Monday through Friday, but only seven hours each day. GSRP operates Monday through Thursday and during school hours. 

The impact: The lack of childcare options is a problem for families and potential employers alike. Alexis, who works in Cassopolis, had her first baby six months ago.
“I can attest to how difficult it is to find quality childcare in rural areas,” she says. “My husband went from working full time to working one day a week so he can stay home with our daughter. Thankfully my employer has been very understanding and allows me to work from home one day a week so my husband can work that day.”

Alexis says the daycare in Cassopolis accepts children starting at age 2 years and the closest licensed centers that accept infants and aren't limited to income-qualified households would add about 45 minutes each way to her commute. “I'm thankful that we are able to have my husband stay home most of the week for now, but I do worry about the future,” she says. “We are a little over the income limits for quality local options like Head Start and Great Start, but the cost of full-time childcare would be more than our mortgage. And that’s just for one kid! I don’t know what we'll do when/if we have a second.”

Hillman says Alexis is hardly alone. “We see both parents not being able to work, and parents resorting to unlicensed, underground care when no other options are available,” she says. “The need for childcare and the lack of available care isn’t new, nor is it just Cass County that needs care— we know that our tri-county area needs an additional 3,200 childcare slots to reach moderate capacity for working families and that doesn’t include the need for before/after care. The lack of care is growing worse nationally.

Seeking solutions: The community is rallying to seek solutions. Earlier this spring, around 115 people attended the first session of the Imagine Center Community Collab at Sam Adams Elementary School to share thoughts about the future of childcare, and other services in Cass County.  “We had some great feedback from the attendees, and the feedback was overall very positive,” LaGrow says.

LaGrow says there is support for creation of a community center that addresses multiple needs — including childcare, library services, health and wellness and community gathering spaces. 

What resources may help: Hillman says a solution comes down to funding for facilities, educating future staff members, and funding to support the cost burden on families.  Current resources include state and federal funding, such as the state-funded GSRP program, and the federally funded Head Start program; state-funded childcare subsidies, and the MI Tri-Share pilot initiative, where the state, employer, and parents each pay one third of childcare costs.

Additionally, some communities and states are passing millages or laws to help support families, because ultimately lack of childcare impacts the future success of children, and the current workforce, and economy.

“As an agency, we are working on expanding our services to serve families above the head start income requirements,” Hillman says. “We are working on facilities, have created a training hub with an apprenticeship, have had a long-standing relationship with SMC to help our staff receive their associates degrees, and are working on funding to help support scholarships for families.”
“What's interesting to me is that this isn’t a problem that will be solved in the free market,” Alexis says. “Childcare is not profitable enough to attract investors looking to open new locations. There is a shortage of childcare teachers because the pay is so low. And childcare is often too expensive for families to afford.

“It has been encouraging to see the state and various employers acknowledge the issue and take action,” Alexis says. “It's progress, but there is still a long way to go.”

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years. She is a regular contributor to Rural Innovation Exchange, UPword, and other Issue Media Group publications. 
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