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May 10, 2023

Grantees in Action: Missoula Child Care Advantage

An Interview with Grace Decker and Sally Henkel of Zero to Five Missoula

There is tremendous demand for child care in Missoula, but only 41% of needed child care slots are available to serve children ages 0-5, and that number drops to about 30% for infants and toddlers. Zero to Five Missoula (a program of United Way of Missoula County) is an early childhood initiative focused on the goal of all children in Missoula County arriving at school ready to thrive. They have been collaborating and innovating to solve Missoula’s child care problem since 2018. 

Their newest endeavor, Missoula Child Care Advantage (MCCA) will be game-changing for early childhood in Missoula. It will help independent child care businesses operate by offering free shared back-office services, while connecting local employers with child care opportunities for their employees. The project will also open 75 new child care slots in Missoula by offering space to 6 child care businesses at the MCCA pilot site at Cold Springs Public School.

We sat down with Grace Decker of Zero to Five Missoula and Sally Henkel, the new Coordinator for MCCA to hear about this innovative new project, and how businesses, child care providers and the community can get involved. 

For those who haven’t heard of Zero to Five Missoula, what’s your elevator speech?

Zero to Five Missoula is an early childhood initiative focused on the goal of all children in Missoula County arriving at school ready to thrive because their early years were full of the things that we know are supportive for kids and families. To pursue that goal, Zero to Five brings together folks from early care and education and social services, and many people who have not always been part of thinking about early childhood — business, philanthropy, government, K-12 and higher education – to come up with collaborative solutions that unlock new possibilities for a stronger early childhood system.

What was the catalyst for starting Missoula Child Care Advantage?

We know that great early care and education set children on the right path to thrive in school, but not enough families can find care or afford it and it’s not always of great quality. Zero to Five Missoula has been paying attention to the critical problem of inadequate child care availability, affordability and quality and working across sectors to solve this problem for years. Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services (DPHHS) made available an innovation grant opportunity for communities to do two things – collaborate in new ways and add new child care slots.

The relationship-building, engagement, and collaboration that we have been doing for the previous few years with support from Headwaters Foundation allowed us to seize this unique opportunity and bring in additional funds from state and local government, K-12 education, business, and philanthropy to launch a truly innovative pilot project.

Tell us more about that pilot project, Missoula Child Care Advantage – how does it work?

MCCA is a network of independent small child care businesses who utilize free, shared back-office services (like payroll, enrollment and waitlist management) to cut down on their workload and improve their bottom line. Those shared services are paid for by membership fees from companies in the Missoula area who can then offer a child care benefit to their employees — access to a preferred waitlist to help them access care faster. 

We’re piloting the MCCA network in an empty wing of Cold Springs Public School, which will create about 75 new child care slots. We are inviting child care providers to apply to start programs in one of the six classrooms in this building. Those providers will have the benefit of access to a space with low rent, and of being in the network and receiving shared services.

What an exciting new program! What’s next for MCCA?

We are finalizing construction plans and an application process for providers now. Construction at Cold Springs School will begin and our provider application will open this summer. Construction will be completed in the fall, and providers will be selected in the fall to move in the following spring. By this time next year, we will have children in the building!

But this is about more than those new child care slots at Cold Springs; the ultimate goal is to expand our network. We want to serve any child care provider in the community so that they can have the benefit of an improved bottom line, staying full all the time, and having shared services. As the network grows, more companies can come in and have an employee child care benefit for their staff. We are confident in our ability to grow, and we see no reason why there couldn’t be a Ravalli Child Care Advantage and a Butte Child Care Advantage and a Billings Child Care Advantage. 

What about this project makes you the most proud?

(Grace) This project is truly an innovation in the way that it brings together pieces and people that weren’t part of building a system that works before. The solutions around early childhood often feel like they are either too little and don’t solve anything, or so big that they aren’t feasible. So, what’s feasible doesn’t have impact, and what’s impactful isn’t feasible. We have found something in-between – a feasible AND impactful solution.  

(Sally) It’s a great reimagining of what the system CAN be, and it’s not a band-aid fix. We’re not just putting out fires, this opens the door for the business community to come to the table and say this is important for our staff, this is an equity issue and it’s an economic issue and we want to do something about it and here is how we can work together. 

How can the community help? 

  • Donate funds for remodel costs! We need to remodel classrooms at Cold Springs School to work for child care. In order to offer a high-quality space, we will need to add things like kitchenettes so that providers can prepare their own food. You can donate here (select Zero to Five from the dropdown menu) or reach out to discuss a contribution.
  • Move your company to sign on! Talk to your HR person about MCCA – share information and express how much you would value a child care benefit. 
  • Join as a child care provider! We are actively looking for child care providers to apply to provide care at Cold Springs School. Reach out to us if you are interested or share information with anyone you know who might be.

To learn more about Missoula Child Care Advantage and reach out to them, visit their website. 

Note: this interview was edited for length and clarity.