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Working to Solve the Child Care Gap in Boulder, Montana

Headwaters Foundation

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Child care in Montana is a major challenge no matter where you live, with existing options meeting less than 50% of parent needs. This child care gap is significantly worse in more rural areas. Many communities in Montana don’t have any licensed or registered providers and parents are forced to make difficult trade-offs to balance work and the needs of their families. One such community with no access to stable childcare is Boulder, Montana. In Boulder, there hasn’t been a licensed childcare provider for over three years. Parents, like Devyn Ottman, who is also a local elementary school teacher, have had to cobble together childcare to make it possible for her to go to her job. However, the Boulder community has come together to work to solve their childcare challenges and is working to ensure that all children in the Boulder area have access to high quality child care. In order to learn more about the work they are doing, we spoke to Drew Dawson, Vice President of the Jefferson Local Development Corporation (JLDC) Board of Directors and President of the Boulder City Council and Devyn Ottman, the Chair of the Boulder Child Care Working Group, to hear what they are doing to help families in their communities and expand access to childcare. 

Headwaters: Why did you become interested in the issue of child care in Boulder? 

Devyn: As a member of the community and as a parent I am living and breathing the effects of no childcare in our community. Struggling each day to find someone willing to commit to watching my children. Most importantly finding someone that we trust and know will provide care for our children in the best way possible. We have been here for over three years now and have struggled with childcare the entire time we have lived here. 

I have personally lived in several different communities and there was never childcare established that met the needs of the community. If there was childcare then it was limited on the availability in the facilities. It is a problem all over Montana. If I can help solve these issues in our community, not only will I benefit, but other families in our community will benefit and it will strengthen our community as a whole.

Headwaters: What about you, Drew? Why did you become interested in childcare in your community? And how is childcare linked to Boulder’s economy? 

Drew: First let me give a little bit of context. When the Montana Legislature decided to close the Montana Developmental Center in 2015, the blow to Boulder’s economy was devastating – a loss of over 200 jobs. Boulder has always been a “can do” community. Through the far-sighted efforts of Jefferson Local Development Corporation (JLDC), our local governments, and our community leaders, they established a community group – the Boulder Transition Advisory Council or BTAC.  

BTAC meets every month to look at the “big picture” of our economic development and to identify the methods by which the community could take action to prevent the loss of jobs, to take care of those who were losing their jobs, and to help rebuild a better Boulder economy – one that is not reliant bi-annual ebb and flow of state government support.

As the BTAC stimulated neighborhood involvement in community meetings about the future of Boulder, engaged in the development of Boulder’s Master Plan and Downtown Master Plan, and solicited public input through town hall meetings and informal surveys, the absence of licensed, affordable childcare became abundantly clear.

In terms of my own interest in child care, as a public health professional for most of my life, the absence of proper early childhood care and education for our children in Boulder was extremely concerning from a social and socialization standpoint.  While not an expert, my colleagues and I knew we could do better and with better eventual outcomes.

Also as an elected official concerned with Boulder’s economy, my colleagues and I knew that the absence of affordable childcare was keeping businesses from moving into Boulder and was preventing both parents who wanted to be employed, from working.

The provision of affordable childcare should be a community-wide issue that requires the concerted and coordinated attention of everyone, private and public, government and non-government.  We are lucky in Boulder/Jefferson County – we are taking a multi-faceted approach.  Uniquely, our local economic development corporation (JLDC) recognizes affordable childcare as an economic issue and will be housing the childcare coordinator funded by the Headwaters Foundation with the additional economic technical assistance of Headwaters Economics in Butte. This solid economic development foundation will likely provide a different and more viable foundation than childcare efforts guided solely by public health or education. The collaboration of public health, economic development, education, local governments, and others should provide an effective, sustainable infrastructure.

Headwaters: What are the biggest challenges your community is facing related to childcare?

Drew: Meeting the multiple diverging expectations of parents may be a challenge.  Some parents will want the childcare provider to “babysit” their young children while they work, but providing education may not be a part of their expectations. Other parents may expect a fairly sophisticated education program for their young children, while others may wish to have an afterschool program that is coordinated with the school system. 

Devyn: Every community has diverse needs and challenges with anything, when focusing on childcare I would say some of the biggest challenges are reliability, quality of care, and children safety. Parents/guardians are faced with searching for childcare providers on their own, and usually out of their own homes. Finding childcare providers that are willing to watch children full time is one of the biggest challenges. For example as a parent I have had weeks where my children were going to a different person each day of that week. In fact it is more likely to have to take my children to multiple people in one week rather than the likelihood that they went to only one person in a week. Which adds stress to households when they can’t find one childcare provider they have to juggle what days they have childcare and what days they don’t. Then the parent/guardians availability is limited. Most importantly the quality of care the children are receiving can be at stake when the parent/guardians are pressed to just find someone to watch their children. This can cause concerns for the safety of the children as well, when others are watching their children from their homes it brings a different list of risks. 

Headwaters: With all of the challenges you’ve laid out, what makes you hopeful?

Drew: I am hopeful because this is a “can do” community, which has already accomplished a great deal in a short period of time and which has a laser focus on the future with people already working hard to make it happen.  The attitude, spirit, enthusiasm, and work ethic of the community make me exceptionally hopeful, plus the enthusiastic support of generous foundations and organizations.

I am excited because the community is truly excited about coming together to solve this problem.  I have been a member of the Boulder community for over 70 years and I don’t think I have ever seen this much enthusiasm, excitement, and support.  While the community doesn’t frequently agree wholeheartedly on many issues, this is all about the kids and it has brought the community together.

The Mayor initially gave of his own money (later re-paid) to buy a building (a previous school building in Helena) for childcare.  The Jefferson County Commissioners provided ARPA money to the City of Boulder to buy the building. The Boulder Elementary School Board approved a lease to the City of Boulder to place the building on school property adjacent to the school which will provide access to other school facilities such as the playground.

We received a grant from Headwaters Foundation to fund a Childcare Coordinator to help start a 501 (c ) (3) corporation, get childcare up and running and coordinate childcare services in the area.  The childcare coordinator will be housed in and be supported by the Jefferson Local Development Corporation (JLDC).  JLDC will assist with the sustainability of the entire effort and will help grow the economy of Jefferson County because of an increased workforce due to enhanced childcare.  The new corporation will help to raise money for childcare and, hopefully, to expand the efforts to focus on opportunities for early childhood development and child development opportunities in Boulder and an expanded area.

There is enthusiasm, excitement, collaboration, and a vision of how it will all come together.  How can we not be excited and hopeful about what we have done and will be doing to solve the childcare challenge?

Headwaters Note: The Boulder community received an early childhood project grant from Headwaters to help get this initiative off the ground and develop a strong plan to move these efforts forward. This is just one of many examples of how communities in Montana are working together to address the childcare crisis in our state.