Edison Neighborhood

YWCA's 24-hour childhood learning center pushes ahead in Kalamazoo’s Edison Neighborhood

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s On the Ground Edison series.

Call it a learning center, the folks at the YWCA of Kalamazoo say, describing the 24-hour childcare program that will be housed inside the new Creamery building in the city’s Edison Neighborhood.

“It’s not just daycare -- what we do in our profession,” says Nichole Blum, early learning program manager for YWCA Kalamazoo. “It is early learning.”

YWCA is continuing to plan for the opening of the YWCA Edison Children’s Center, a 24-hour drop-in center that will provide affordable child care for infants to 3-year-olds as well as second- and third-shift childcare for children up to age 12. The program will be open to families throughout the community. And it is expected to open in late summer or early fall of 2021.

“I think it’s two parts,” Blum says of the program that will operate at the south end of The Creamery. “The service that we’ll be providing at YWCA Edison, as we do at our downtown location, is care that isn’t necessarily going to happen during the day and it’s also an expansion of that.”

While children are in their care, YWCA staff members will be using a research evidenced-based curriculum, tracking each child’s development and assessing them.

Nichole Blum, early learning program manager for YWCA Kalamazoo, talks about the development of the YWCA Edison Children’s Center during a Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020 tour.“So it’s more than just watching children,” Blum says. “And from a professional aspect – the early childhood profession, we work very hard at professionalizing our work and all that goes into it. And so we want to model appropriate language because words matter. So it’s not just daycare what we do in our profession. It is early learning.”

The Creamery is a 48-unit, three-story apartment and commercial structure that has been under construction since late 2019 at Portage and Lake streets. It is a $14.3 million project of Portage-based Hollander Development Corp. But the redevelopment of the 1.3-acres, long-vacant parcel on which it sits, is a shared vision of the Edison Neighborhood Association, the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and the City of Kalamazoo. The project takes its name from the site, which for 78 years was the location of the Klover Gold Creamery. That business closed in 1997.

YWCA will own and expects to take occupancy of its space inside the Creamery building in January. It will use about 7,000 square feet on the ground and mezzanine levels of the building at its southern end.

“Our program is going to be structured in a way so that the children in our care will be engaged and taught,” says Lisa Rodriguez, Vice President of Development for YWCA Kalamazoo. “Of course, somebody might say, ‘How can you teach a 10-month-old?’ But you can engage. You can make sure that child hears the appropriate number of words to stimulate their brain and get their brain receptive for academic readiness.”

The YWCA Edison Children’s Center on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. The 24-hour early learning center will use about 7,000 square feet of space on the ground- and mezzanine levels of The Creamery building on Portage Street at Lake Street.Blum says the first 1,000 days of life are when the structure of the brain is formed and those structures “are developed based on the experiences a child has whether positive or negative.” For kids ages 0 to 3, she says, “We want to make sure the experiences they have are positive ones.”

The new facility will have an indoor learning environment designed to reduce stressors. There will be a nature-based play space outdoors that has nature exploration landscaping, including water, sand, and a garden area.

Blum says the center also wants to engage the families of the children in its care.

This opening looks from the young children’s main room into an area that will serve as the kitchen at the YWCA Edison Children’s Center.“From an early childhood perspective, children exist within the context of their family,” she says. “And so we want to support families in being their child’s first teacher. So we can’t just teach the kids while they’re with us and expect that that learning continues on – if we’re not engaging families in that process. So when we’re teaching kids, we’re also teaching families so the learning can be extended to the household.”

Improving the lives of children is one of the four strategic focuses of YWCA. The others are: Advocacy and systems change to address racial and gender disparities; The promotion of maternal and child health; And caring for victims of abuse.

Dr. Grace Lubwama identified the need for more quality childcare in Kalamazoo’s core communities not long after joining YWCA as its chief executive officer about six years ago. Edison, which is the city’s most populous neighborhood, is very diverse economically and YWCA joined forces with Hollander Development when that firm decided to redevelop the former creamery location.

In a prepared statement, Lubwama says, YWCA Kalamazoo strategically expands programming in order to advance our mission of eliminating racism and empowering women. Safe and reliable childcare that is also affordable is critical to supporting women and families in their upward economic mobility. We are proud to collaborate with partners in the Edison Neighborhood, such as the Kalamazoo Literacy Council and El Concilio, to connect to the community and with Hollander Development and the Sisters of St. Joseph, whose work aligns with the work of YWCA.”

Blum says the YWCA Edison Children’s Center expects to be able to accommodate 42 children at any one time. “However, because part of our services are drop-in (youngsters coming and going according to their parents’ schedules), that translates into 126 child-care slots daily.”

The Center will have a 30-person staff and YWCA hopes to recruit at least half of that from the surrounding Edison Neighborhood.

“YWCA is focused on empowerment and the elimination of racism,” Blum says. “So what we really want are people who are committed to developing relationships and who are also committed to moving our mission forward.”

She says YWCA is working to develop career pathways around early childhood development so that individuals who might not have pictured themselves in the early childhood profession, or those who might be from the neighborhood where the programming will be, can have a pathway into the profession.

Blum suggests that those interested in trying to find a spot in the program for their child, as well as those interested in career possibilities, consult the YWCA website.

“I think all-in-all, this expansion has really been an opportunity for YWCA to look at the challenges that facilitating childcare brings up, and address those challenges in a way that is inclusive and supportive of the community we’re trying to serve,” Blum says.

YWCA’s downtown location has programming for youngsters from six weeks of age to about age 5 (the day before they enter kindergarten). The new Edison location is being developed to address needs expressed by the community – more infant-toddler care and non-traditional child care (child care on a drop-in basis and to serve second- and third-shift workers), she says.

While the center is open to all in need, Blum says, “We create programming for families of young children that is designed in an accessible way. So we’re looking to serve families that don’t normally have access to programming, that may have transportation as a barrier, that may not exactly know how to enroll their child in a childcare center or why they might be interested. We’re here to support the most vulnerable.”

Photos by Fran Dwight. See more of her work here.

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.