The Boone Beginnings center is being built to help meet demand in the county--roughly 80 area children have no child care available at all. Similar projects in Red Cloud and Wood River show the growing demand for high-quality early care and education in Nebraska.
By Matthew Hansen, Managing Editor
The people who are changing the future for the children of Albion, Nebraska, sit together at a table, explaining why they had to change it.
Parents in Boone County had been pleading for more child care for years, citing it again and again in community meetings as the area’s most desperate need, says the cattle rancher.
Area employers had grown frustrated, too, as they watched workers arrive late, leave early, or quit because of child care problems and shortages, the economic development leader says.
If we did nothing, how would we bring in new business, asks the lawyer. How could we attract young parents to move to Albion, asks the award-winning teacher. How do you do that if there’s no one to care for the kids?
And these are our kids, the cattle rancher says, stressing the last two words. Our kids.
The people sitting at the table know that more of their kids can be ready for kindergarten, ready for graduation, ready for real life—if area adults can offer more of them quality early childhood education.
“You don’t find very many projects where you can make a big, important, long-term impact on the community where you live,” says Jay Wolf, the cattle rancher and lifelong Albion resident. “This is it. This is that project.”
He’s talking about Boone Beginnings, a $4.2 million project, a piece of land on the outskirts of town, a sign marking the future site of an early childhood center that can care for and educate 80 children.
Boone Beginnings and projects like it also serve as a flashing sign to Nebraska, a distress signal that we need to get our act together if we want to do for our children what Albion is trying to do for theirs.
Projects like Boone Beginnings, the already-up-and-running Valley Child Development Center in Red Cloud, and Stick Creek Kids in Wood River show the growing demand for good early childhood education in nearly every community in our state. They show the huge hurdles that towns like Albion, Red Cloud, and Wood River must leap—for example, raising millions of dollars in a small town with scant federal or state help.
They illustrate the need for statewide change, the kind called for by the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission in a report released in January—change that could help us properly fund early childhood education, pay teachers and providers more than the rock-bottom wages currently forcing many to flee the field, and end rampant child care shortages and problems statewide.
And stories like Albion’s teach us that despite the daunting obstacles—despite the fact we’re far from where we need to be in Nebraska—we can still figure out how to make things better for our children.
We can do it, because we must.
Jay Wolf and Lindsey Jarecki
“The only conclusion you can come to is that this isn’t a want for this community,” says Jeff Jarecki, an Albion lawyer and one of the forces behind Boone Beginnings. “It’s an absolute necessity.”
The necessity started to become apparent in Albion a few years ago, when the Nebraska Community Foundation held two community meetings, called visioning sessions, to talk to residents about what they wanted for the future. Child care was a top item listed both times, Wolf says.
Wolf, a local cattle rancher, business owner, and lifetime Albion resident, at first believed that the town simply needed more babysitters.
Then he met Lindsey Jarecki, an award-winning teacher from Elkhorn who had moved to town with her husband, Jeff, an Albion native, and children.
She taught Wolf and others that young children need age- and developmentally-appropriate activities. They need all sorts of stimulation and support as their brains form and grow. They often need more than babysitters. Research shows they need skilled teachers and caregivers.
Jarecki, at the behest of Albion community groups, surveyed the existing area in-home child care providers. She heard about long wait lists. She talked to providers frustrated because they often held spots open for school-age children who ended up spending one or two hours in their care.
With that knowledge, Jarecki and the Boone Central Schools system developed an after-school program for school-age kids, aided by a grant from Beyond School Bells.
Wolf and others say they thought that the after-school program might solve the problem. It didn’t. Demand for early care—and parental demands for more quality care—simply kept going up. Roughly 80 area children have no available child care at all, Boone Beginnings’ founders say, a massive shortage in a rural county.
Says attorney Jeff Jarecki: “It’s a crisis if you get pregnant in this town.”
Then Jay Wolf heard the news about Wayne, Nebraska. Wayne was averaging 17 children a year deemed not ready for kindergarten. They built an early childhood center. That number dropped to five.
“Kids who start kindergarten behind are often still behind when they graduate. You have such a hard, hard time catching them up,” Wolf says. “That’s when the light went on for me. I thought, ‘let’s give our kids, all of our kids, a chance.’”
A growing group of allies including Wolf, Lindsey and Jeff Jarecki, Boone County Development Agency Director Michelle Olson, and others got to work building a nonprofit early childhood center for the Albion area.
They received a large challenge grant, $500,000, from the Niewohner family—a challenge grant the community quickly matched. They got big gifts from other longtime area donors and smaller ones from people who had rarely donated to anything before.
They have raised more than $3 million thus far, nearly all of it from folks inside Boone County.
When it opens, Boone Beginnings will be next door to Albion’s assisted living center. There are tentative plans to co-program activities so the area’s oldest and youngest residents can spend time together. They also tentatively plan to hire a director who’s a business manager and an assistant director who trains staff and sets the curriculum.
There are still challenges, sticky issues that need more attention at a statewide level. How can a program like Boone Beginnings stay in business without losing money? Can you offer quality early childhood education without bleeding cash?
It isn’t “all butterflies and rainbows,” Lindsey Jarecki says, but she and the other forces behind Boone Beginnings are certain that the early childhood center will transform the Albion area.
Boone Beginnings will serve as a recruiting tool to attract and retain young families, they say. It will improve the school readiness of area kids. It will let employees go to work without worrying about child care, keep more employees in the workforce, and make employers happy.
It will give Albion a leg up over many other Nebraska communities that don’t have a Boone Beginnings. It’s a win, the people sitting at the table say. It’s a win-win-win-win-win.
“It’s not just moms and not just teachers. It’s economic development, it’s business owners, it’s ranchers, it is everyone who has an interest in this project,” says Lindsey Jarecki.
“People here get it, “Wolf says. “They get it on so many levels. Sometimes it surprises you how much people really get it.”
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.