Potentially good news is in the works for families looking for child care in the East County area. The House draft supplemental capital budget contains more than $800,000 toward the creation of a new facility that will expand space for an existing child care center in Elma.
“We’re still in the running, but the race isn’t over yet,” said Stephanie Smith, owner and operator of Learning to Grow child care.
When Smith’s original facility burned down in 2016, she was able to provide services in the downstairs of her own home — a fully-licensed facility on its own — and worked out an arrangement with St. Luke’s Church to house another facility. Zoning laws don’t allow that location to be a permanent child care facility, though the city has been working with the center so Smith can continue operations while searching for another location.
Learning to Grow serves about 160 kids through its various programs. If the state money survives the budget negotiations that will be ongoing in the Legislature, likely right up the scheduled end of the session March 12, the money will be used toward purchasing modular buildings for a new facility on property in Elma.
“The Abundant Life Church owns 8.2 acres directly on the viaduct,” north of Highway 12, directly behind the Elma Pet Clinic. The church has been issued the necessary permits to develop that land for new church buildings.
Smith said the church and Learning to Grow are working out some kind of lease agreement, the details of which are still not final, that will allow Smith to place several modular units on the property to use as a child care facility.
“That $800,000 will purchase two brand new modular buildings – that is what our current plan is,” said Smith. “That will create five classrooms. And there is a used modular currently in Olympia we went and saw about a week ago, and our tentative plan is to purchase that.”
The used modular’s previous life was spent as an education building. Smith’s plan is to use it to create two large classrooms, a full kitchen, and provide office and staff space.
“The grant will purchase, in essence, the main buildings. That will leave us the cost of furnishing them,” said Smith. That includes kitchen appliances, along with the cost of curriculum, toys, cribs, and an outside play area, a big component of the facility.
“The biggest expense left will be a commercial playground and all the outside fencing and pieces to create a safe, but very engaging, fun outdoor space for kids,” said Smith. “We want to have a really amazing outdoor program for them.”
If the funding comes through and the modulars can be purchased, it will open more spots than those currently available at Learning to Grow.
“We only really have the ability to serve four classes in our current configuration,” said Smith. “With the move we’d be able to serve at least seven classes, really eight with school-age kids.”
Like many area child care providers, Smith has found herself growing into an advocate not just for her own facility, but for providers and families across the state who are affected by the lack of child care in nearly every region.
She’s worked closely with Dru Garson, CEO of Greater Grays Harbor Inc., and 24th District State Representatives Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, and Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim. “They’ve all been huge champions for us,” said Smith. Tharinger is chairman of the House Capital Budget Committee.
“The draft House budget so far funds her project,” said Chapman. “Apparently budget writers were able to move some money around to fund a few more early learning/child care projects, which is hugely positive.”
“In the capital budget we put an additional $7.5 million for child care and early learning capacity,” said Tharinger. “One early learning center in Elma (Smith’s) is going to be able to get some money,” he said, adding negotiations with the Senate are just beginning, but “I’ve got a good sense we’ll be able to keep that.”
Smith is hopeful, at the same time realistic; Learning to Grow’s $800,000 must survive the House and Senate budget negotiations. No matter what happens, she’s satisfied she’s done her part for get the word out about the drastic need for child care on the Harbor, and elsewhere.
“I’ve worked really hard to advocate, not just selfishly for Learning to Grow,” said Smith. “Across the state there are just not enough slots for child care. While I worked hard to advocate for our program, I’ve also worked hard to advocate for the need at large. If we don’t get funding this cycle I’m hopeful and confident we would score very high for the next round of grants that come out during the next budget cycle.”
Smith applied for the same type of grant the YMCA of Grays Harbor received earlier this month through the Department of Commerce. Learning to Grow was considered a qualified applicant, but the money ran out before her project could be funded. The $800,000 in the proposed supplemental capital budget is the maximum amount she would have received from her Commerce grant application.