Three years after opening, The Valley Child Development Center gives nearly 70 children a high-quality early childhood education in Red Cloud, Nebraska. Here, children and a teacher check out a strawberry bed, part of the center's garden-and-food education program.
By Matthew Hansen, Managing Editor
Kelsey Carlson calls me from the road, as she drives the quiet ribbon of highway connecting the hospital where she works to the small-town child care that has changed her life.
Not long ago, when her daughter, Avery, went to a different child care, Kelsey would sob while driving to pick her up. She worried her daughter wasn’t safe. She dreaded the thought that Avery was planted in front of a TV. And Kelsey cried because she felt the terror that too many working parents—especially working moms—too often feel. She felt terrified that she was failing at work and failing her only child.
But today, as Kelsey drives to pick up her daughter from child care, her fear has vanished. A year ago, the Carlsons moved Avery to The Valley Child Development Center, a one-of-a-kind center located in tiny Red Cloud, Nebraska.
And now, as she drives, Kelsey tells me she knows that Avery is safe, stimulated, and learning all sorts of things faster than her parents ever thought possible.
“That sense of security is absolutely priceless as a parent,” Kelsey says. “And then to get top-notch early education on top of that?”
She falls silent for a second, and I can hear her car’s wheels rolling down Highway 136 toward her daughter.
“I feel like The Valley Child Development Center saved us, in some way,” she says finally. “I really do.”
I smile when Kelsey says this, because when it comes to The Valley Child Development Center, I am no neutral observer.
Red Cloud is my hometown. My mother, Sally Hansen, a retired early childhood educator and administrator, helped spearhead the years-long effort to imagine, build, and open this high-quality child care everyone calls TVCDC. Relatives, friends, people I grew up with, people I have known my whole life, banded together to turn this dream into a reality.
That reality: Three years after opening, TVCDC gives nearly 70 children a high-quality early childhood education in Red Cloud, Nebraska—the sort of education simply unavailable in most towns this size.
It’s a stunning rural Nebraska success story. It’s a hard-earned miracle in my no-stoplight hometown.
“Small town kids deserve to thrive, too,” says Meggan Messersmith, the center’s director. “This place is going to help produce high-quality humans. And it’s going to help Red Cloud succeed.”
A few short years ago, nobody dared speak of success. In Red Cloud, they talked about child care with the urgency of a four-alarm fire. And, if you were a parent in Red
Avery (in foreground) and classmates decorate cookies.
Cloud then, it was your dreams, for your children and your own career, that sometimes felt like they had been set aflame.
Then, there was only one licensed child care provider, a small in-home provider, to serve children living within a 20-mile radius of Red Cloud.
This lack of quality child care is depressingly common in Nebraska. Eleven counties in the state have no licensed providers. Almost every county in the state has fewer child care slots than families need.
But what is uncommon is what Red Cloud’s residents decided to do about this. They acknowledged the four-alarm child care fire, built their own fire engine from the wheels up, slid down the pole and sped to put the blaze out.
They did this by raising $2.1 million to build TVCDC on the south end of town. They did it by donating more money to construct two outdoor classrooms. They did it when Sabrina Schulz and husband Bruce Nelson donated the money to build small-town Nebraska’s first official Edible Schoolyard, a garden-and-food education program started by famed chef Alice Waters. Sabrina is my cousin. Like I said, it’s a small town.
But the solution wasn’t just brick, mortar, and dirt. At every turn, TVCDC’s founders make sure to keep the teacher-to-student ratio low. They hire certified teachers. They accept children who qualify under the government’s child care subsidy program—allowing families of lower income access to quality care—even though that subsidy doesn’t cover the full cost of care and learning. And they keep the monthly cost to all parents as low as possible, even though that guarantees a persistent funding gap that must be closed with constant fundraising.
In short, they strive to give Red Cloud-area babies, infants, toddlers, and grade schoolers all the things that many city and suburban parents expect for their own young children.
“When you take a step back, and you think about our humble beginnings, and where we are today, it’s just … wow,” says Ashley Armstrong, the TVCDC board’s vice president and one of the driving forces who got it built. “People around here are accepting it, recognizing the importance of quality, buying in. TVCDC is starting to seem like it’s been here forever.”
It is easy to see the value of TVCDC when you see it through Kelsey Carlson’s eyes.
Momma Carlson’s first concern: Safety. Avery Carlson developed a soft spot on her head at her old day care, from lying flat too much and not getting enough tummy time. At TVCDC, Avery Carlson immediately started to be given that tummy time, so much so that the soft spot healed, and she avoided having to wear a helmet.
The TVCDC teachers spotted a spider bite that grew infected, heading off a medical disaster. They constantly communicate with Kelsey Carlson via a smartphone app, phone calls, and in-person chats.
Now, when Kelsey sits down to eat lunch at the hospital, she looks at the photos of her daughter from that morning, and reads updates on her food intake, her diaper changes, activities she’s engaged in, how her day is going.
“I am involved in my child’s life, even when I’m not there,” Kelsey Carlson says.
And Avery Carlson isn’t just being cared for lovingly. She’s also rapidly developing her brain each and every day. She’s constantly learning, even though it feels to her like play.
She’s building her large motor skills. Recently, Avery and her friends in the toddler classroom did a “pumpkin walk,” moving pumpkins to a mat and then walking and hopping around them. She plays on a balance beam and, when she goes outside, uses the “hopping stones” in the outdoor classroom.
She’s building her fine motor skills. Last week, teachers gave Avery and her friends raw spaghetti and Cheerios, and then showed them how to string the Cheerios and build structures with Play-Doh.
“They eat the Cheerios, they eat some spaghetti, and yeah, a few ate some Play-Doh,” Messersmith says. “They didn’t even realize they were learning and building those skills.”
Avery’s language development has exploded in the past few months. This is in large part because, every day at TVCDC, the staff speaks to her constantly, narrating movements—“OK, Avery, let’s climb up the steps, one, two three, four!” They also constantly read to the toddlers, having the kids make animal sounds in the books and asking questions about characters’ facial expressions.
Avery’s also learning sign language, widely used at TVCDC with children who understand words but can’t yet form many of their own. She’s learning to pair words with those signs.
And Avery is also constantly learning little lessons that will help her grow into a socially and emotionally healthy grade schooler, teenager, and adult.
She’s learning how to not let her emotions overwhelm her. She’s learning empathy.
“Is a kid mad that they wanted a red block and not a blue one? OK, that’s the start of realizing that this isn’t a dead end, it isn’t always a reason for a tantrum,” says Ashley Armstrong. “We can help them work through this, and we can come out together on the other, more positive side.”
Kelsey Carlson keeps extolling the virtues of this early education as she is 10 minutes from Red Cloud, then five, then sitting in her car in the parking lot. But she needs to tell me a couple more things before she goes, things that will warm the hearts of anyone who cares about the future of Red Cloud, Nebraska—and any small town that is following Red Cloud’s lead and building its own high-quality child care.
Kelsey says she has become a better parent because of TVCDC. She has learned about language development and social-emotional skills from Avery’s teachers and implemented those lessons at home.
She says the Carlson family will stay in Red Cloud thanks in large part to The Valley Child Development Center. How could they even consider moving now?
And Kelsey says that she and her husband are thinking about having a second child. They know that child will be safe, and loved, and learn so quickly at the high-quality small-town child development center that is changing the Carlsons’ lives.
“We can have another kid, we can live in this small town we love, and we can feel so good about that,” she says. “Honestly, for us, it’s a dream come true.”
Then Kelsey Carlson excuses herself. It’s time to pick up her first child from child care, give her a hug, and take her home.
Matthew Hansen, the managing editor of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, is an award-winning journalist tasked with telling the stories of the Institute's work and early childhood care and education in Nebraska and beyond.
His columns can be read at https://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu/news-and-events/early-years-matter.