Childcare SPARK finds unique solutions to pressing issue

Who will care for your young children while you work?

That question faces almost every parent of a preschooler. And for many in the U.P., it’s a daunting mountain to climb.

Childcare SPARK, a collaborative effort of several organizations under the umbrella of the Lake Superior Community Partnership, is bringing an answer to that question in the Marquette area by training prospective home childcare providers. It also encourages entrepreneurship as it helps individuals successfully develop their own in-home businesses. 

“There is a great need for childcare in our region, especially in rural areas and especially for infant-toddler care,” says Deb Dupras, U.P. director of Great Start to Quality. “There are families who have to make a choice between working or staying at home to care for their child. That has an economic impact on families, businesses and the community.” 

Dupras says she has heard from parents who could not find infant-toddler care. One parent told her she drives 30 miles to childcare and 30 miles back to work, then has to do it again to pick up her child. 

The first-of-its-kind program launched earlier this year and recently graduated its first three students who are starting their own childcare businesses.

Childcare is a pressing issue across the Upper Peninsula, Michigan and the country. Childcare SPARK is another example of how U.P. collaboration and ingenuity are helping address the issue regionally. Another organization, the Upper Peninsula Childcare Task Force, has been formed to come up with solutions to childcare shortages as well.

"There’s definitely a shortage. There are a lot more kids that need daycare than there are openings,” says Rebecca Dales, director of Childcare SPARK. 

What is Childcare SPARK: Childcare SPARK is an innovative, first-of-its-kind program combining expertise in business development, childcare operations and childhood development into a business accelerator model to help interested entrepreneurs understand, launch, operate and grow home-based childcare businesses. Childcare SPARK is funded by the State of Michigan Equity Fund and an American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allocation from the Marquette County Commission. 

What is Great Start to Quality: Great Start to Quality is a state of Michigan initiative that funds 10 regional resource centers to provide information for parents and support for childcare providers. Dupras is the director of the U.P. resource center, covering 15 counties in the Upper Peninsula. Great Start to Quality is one of the organizations collaborating to sponsor Childcare SPARK

Meet the recent graduates: The program recently graduated its first three students. Ashley Jarvi, Lysa Stockwell and Theresa Higdon are starting their own in-home childcare businesses, opening 30 more slots for infants and toddlers in the Marquette area. 

Ashley Jarvi: Jarvi says she faced challenges finding childcare for her own two children, a 6-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy. “It is hard to bring two kids to someone else’s house and also work around the school schedule,” she explains. Then a friend told her about Childcare SPARK. “It just made sense to start my own childcare business at this point in my life,” she says. Her family even bought a bigger house in West Ishpeming so she could open a home daycare there. She plans to care for six children at first and eventually 10. Is she finding a demand for her service? “I keep getting calls, and technically, I’m full already and have a waiting list,” she says. 

Theresa Higdon: The Negaunee resident has done various kinds of childcare for more than 50 years. She raised five children, and after taking care of her granddaughter for two years and planning to care for another baby on the way, she decided to get a daycare license. “I wanted to provide the type of daycare that directly reflected the values and beliefs of our family,” she says. “I didn’t want my infant granddaughter to be cared for by a stranger who also had three or four other babies under their care.”

When she heard about Childcare SPARK, she promptly signed up. She says if she listed all the things she learned in the 12-week program, it would be a long list.  “Each member of the training team contributed knowledge from their area of expertise. We learned about early childhood development, financing, marketing, entrepreneurship, networking and licensing,” she explains. Each trainee was also connected with a local mentor. 

Licensing is a huge hurdle for entrepreneurs who want to start an in-home childcare business. “A daycare license can be difficult to achieve,” says Higdon. 

Lysa Dawn Stockwell: The Marquette Township resident is the third Childcare SPARK graduate. She found state licensing requirements very confusing. “Also, understanding the childcare laws can be confusing,” she says. “The leaders of SPARK said from the first class, ‘We got you!’ And they did. They answered our questions, clarified what was confusing and encouraged all of us to complete the task of becoming licensed childcare providers.”  

Childcare SPARK support: Childcare SPARK doesn’t just push its graduates out the door when they finish their training. “We are still in contact with the graduates, offering support and advice,” says Christopher Germain, CEO of the Lake Superior Community Partnership. The three graduates also provide support for each other, visiting each other’s homes to see how they have set up their space, sharing problems and seeking solutions. “They were strangers walking in. They’re best friends now,” Germain says. 

What’s next: Childcare SPARK is revamping its training to make it more accessible to people throughout the U.P. “We found it is hard for would-be childcare providers to make a 12-week commitment to in-person classes,” Dales explains. Also, the first three graduates all said that 12 weeks of training is not enough.  Now instructors will be recording their lectures and putting them online so that each student can complete the program online at their own pace. They will also meet in person—or online if they live far away—with their mentor and business coach. It’s not going to cost much to put it on the internet, Dales points out, and she hopes to have it up and running soon.  

To apply: There is an application form on the Childcare SPARK website. Anyone interested can also email Rebecca Dales at or call the Lake Superior Community Partnership at 906- 226-6591.

Jennifer Donovan is a reporter with more than 40 years of experience on daily newspapers, magazines and university writing and editing. She is retired as director of news and media relations at Michigan Technological University and lives in Houghton.
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