‘The sky’s the limit’

How businesses, communities and day care centers are innovating together to address state’s child care crisis

By Emily Kestel

Addressing the child care crisis in the state is a bit like a high-stakes puzzle. The objective is simple: Have an equal ratio of child care slots and kids who need care. But there are countless factors that make the puzzle challenging, most of which can be lumped into themes of affordability, availability, quality and staffing. 

There are a quarter of a million kids under the age of 5 living in Iowa, but only 175,000 registered child care slots, which on paper means about 60,000 children don’t have access to child care, should they need it. 

Many child care providers struggle to stay open due to the razor-thin profit margins they’re forced to operate on. They often can’t afford to pay teachers a living wage – a child care worker in Iowa earns a median hourly wage of $13.85 – so those employees leave to work in other industries, which then causes extreme workforce shortages. But providers can’t raise their wages, because that would mean parents have to pay more. 

Iowa parents often pay between 10% and 14% of their income for care – which is above the 7% national affordability benchmark. Some families can expect to pay $13,000 a year for care for one child. 

More than three-quarters of Iowa families with children under the age of 6 have all parents in the workforce. But if they’re unable to find quality, available child care – or they can’t afford it – one parent can find themselves being pushed out of the workforce. 

With all of that in mind, within the past several years businesses have realized that access to child care is a critical economic issue, and have started to seriously look at what they can do to help. 

The solutions to the child care crisis aren’t cut and dried, and vary depending on the community’s needs. 

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all when it comes to child care, because every community is so different,” said Sheri Penney, employer engagement director at the Iowa Women’s Foundation. 

Both Penney and Emily Schmitt, chair of the state’s Child Care Task Force, said they’ve seen an increase in business involvement in child care, and believe public-private partnerships are the way to go to make the child care industry in Iowa sustainable long-term. 

The Business Record visited a handful of unique child care businesses to see how they operate. The innovations of each organization address specific child care gaps. 

Kidz Corner 

Kidz Corner, owned by husband-wife duo Josh and Tina Terrell, is a drop-in child care center in Urbandale that opened in July 2021. 

Before they moved to Des Moines, Tina, who serves as the director of Kidz Corner, was a preschool teacher in eastern Iowa. When Josh and Tina had looked into opening a center in the metro, they were intrigued by the drop-in center concept because of how it fits with the current economic reality. 

Dubbing it “convenient care” or “flexible care,” Josh said the model is geared toward parents who have irregular child care needs. Situational examples could include parents who work a hybrid schedule, are part of the gig economy, are waiting to get into a full-time child care center, or need time to run solo errands. After registering their child with Kidz Corner, parents make reservations through an app and can book time that day or several months out. 

Kidz Corner has 12 employees and room for 76 kids at any given time, but generally has between 35 and 40 kids in the building. 

Sydney Marshman, whose 9-month-old Lincoln attends the center, is an occupational therapist and founder of Happy at Home Consulting. She said she was drawn to Kidz Corner for its flexibility. 

“Owning my own business and being a mom, I wanted to balance those two,” she said, adding that it’s helpful to switch up the number of days she needs care. 

Tina believes this type of care is in high demand and hopes to open another location in the future. The Terells are also looking to develop a business partnership program that would provide employer-subsidized child care credits. 

“The world changed with the pandemic,” Josh said. “People are looking for different opportunities that have flexibility.” 

Williamsburg Community Child Care Center

Jennah Traynor. Photo by Emily Kestel

One might not assume that an outlet mall in rural Iowa is a good place for a child care center.

Sandy Joseph, executive director of W4Cs (which stands for Williamsburg Community Child Care Center), thought that too – until someone from Bayer Crop Science, which is a local employer, knocked on the door in 2020. 

Brett Wilson, Bayer’s Williamsburg site lead, was looking for help in providing child care for its seasonal migrant workforce. Historically, the company had hired people to babysit employees’ children, but they were looking to modernize efforts. 

W4Cs was full, so he asked if it could expand its operations into a new building, and mentioned they would help foot the bill to do so.

Iowa County is home to more than 1,100 kids under 5, but only has 600 spaces across child care centers, homes and preschools. 

W4Cs had initially looked at moving into a former Head Start building in town, but the city administrator instead steered them toward the outlet mall, which would be more affordable, Joseph said. 

“My knee-jerk reaction was, ‘What? Put a child care center in a mall? Are you kidding? No way!’” she recalled, but said she was open to looking at the 9,000-square-foot space, tucked in the back northeast corner of the outlet mall. 

At the same time, Kristie Wetjen, general manager of Outlets & Marketplace Williamsburg, was looking at different ways to drive local traffic to the center, because she realized the company couldn’t sustain itself with its current retail-only business model. 

“We’re in the middle of nowhere. No one builds outlet centers in places like this anymore,” she said.  

Wetjen’s boss gave her the go-ahead to move forward with the idea, and after more than a year of grant writing, community meetings, planning and construction, W4Cs North opened its doors in the old Dress Barn store in July 2022. 

The center has capacity for 88 kids, and as of early 2023, has 45 kids enrolled and 20 people on the payroll. 

The center was awarded a $406,888 grant through the Future Ready Iowa Child Care Challenge, and received $350,000 in private investments, including from Bayer Crop Science, Compass Memorial Hospital, and Outlets & Marketplace Williamsburg. 

Bayer pays to hold 26 child care slots whether the company’s employees have a child there or not. Wilson said it’s a huge benefit as a business to have a child care center that their employees can use.

“A public-private partnership is the only way to make this happen,” Wilson said. “The sky’s the limit, this is the starting point.” 

Yellow Iron Academy 

Many of the 4,000 employees who work at Vermeer Corp. commute 30 or more miles to work each day. For those who have young children, there were challenges finding child care that fit the needs of their schedules. 

In the early 2010s, Vermeer looked into opening a child care center nearby, and did so across the street from its main campus in 2014, partnering with national employer-sponsored child care provider Bright Horizons. 

Yellow Iron Academy is located in a 25,000-square-foot red barn, and has multiple classrooms, an art studio and a science lab. Yellow Iron places an emphasis on using a STEM curriculum as an homage to Vermeer being an engineering company.

Roughly 60% of the kids at Yellow Iron have parents who work at Vermeer, and the other 40% are from the community. The center is almost at its capacity of 136 kids. To work with Vermeer’s shifts, Yellow Iron is open from 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. 

Mindi VandenBosch, vice president of operations at Vermeer, said Yellow Iron has been a good retention tool, and said Vermeer subsidizes the cost of child care to make it affordable for its employees. 

As for the 30 teachers and staff members who work at Yellow Iron, Sarah Stevens said Bright Horizons offers health, dental and vision insurance, a 401(k) plan and free college for employees. 

“We treat it as a profession rather than babysitting,” she said. “We make it so you can start and end your career in child care.” 

It Takes a Village

Bob Jefferson and Prince Avoni Keys. Photo by Emily Kestel

More than half of grandparents in the U.S. have at least one grandchild who lives more than 200 miles away.

Diminished access to elderly relatives is something that concerns Lisa Gates, president and CEO of Friendship Village Retirement Community in Waterloo.

She, like many other C-suite leaders, is also fighting in the talent war. 

Gates said Waterloo has its fair share of long-term care communities, hospitals and stand-alone nursing homes, which are all looking to hire nurses and other care providers. 

Gates, along with the Friendship Village board, decided to open a child care facility across the street from its main building in 2019 after looking to United Presbyterian Home in western Iowa as an example.

“We wanted to offer an amenity to staff as a recruitment tool to attract the best of the best to take care of our residents,” Gates said. It has worked, to a degree, she added. Friendship Village staff members not only have a guaranteed spot for their child, but they also get a discount to send their kids to the center. 

It Takes a Village, which operates under the same umbrella as Friendship Village, has a staff of 30 people and capacity for 105 kids, but had about 50 enrolled as of early 2023. Most of the kids’ parents work for Friendship Village or nearby MercyOne Waterloo Medical Center, but anyone in the community can apply. 

Beyond the talent recruitment tactic is the benefit to both the kids and the residents. Every Wednesday, a group of “grandparents” from Friendship Village comes to the child care center to read, play, hug, rock and talk with the kids. 

Tracy Newton, director of It Takes a Village, said it’s a great opportunity for the kids to learn from the elderly.

“We want the kids to learn acceptance of others with differences. We have a lot of veterans that come in here, amputees, people who have maybe lost their feet to diabetes, things like that. They’re getting exposed to all of those things,” she said. 

Newton also said it’s therapeutic for the residents, who may not have many opportunities to be around young children anymore. Some of them have also built dollhouses, created toys for the sandbox or sewn bibs and blankets. 

“It gives the residents a purpose and a reason to get up in the morning,” she said. 

Gates said the nonquantifiable benefits are numerous, and she’d like to see the model of intergenerational care replicated elsewhere in the state.

“How do you measure the cost of giving that validity to a resident’s life? It’s a great relationship to have and it’s something we just want to grow and grow and grow.”

Oak Academy 

The vast majority of parents have to drive their kids several miles – or more – to drop them off at day care. Not so for residents of Oakridge Neighborhood in Des Moines. 

Oakridge is a nonprofit housing and human services agency that’s home to more than 1,000 people – 72% of whom are refugees or immigrants. 

Part of what makes Oakridge Neighborhood Services unique is its wraparound services that address the spectrum of services that residents need beyond housing, including workforce readiness training, youth employment opportunities, enrichment programs and child care. 

Its child care center, Oak Academy, is housed in two buildings on the campus, and has capacity for 120 kids. Half of the enrolled kids live in Oakridge, and the other half are from the community. 

Its primary clientele is a diverse and/or low-income population, and 90% of its families are on child care assistance. Many of the 22 staff members at Oak Academy have worked there for more than 10 years – a statistic that’s practically unheard of in the child care field. 

Bethany Davis, vice president of early childhood at Oakridge, attributes that to its family-first model, and the fact that teachers are treated as professionals. 

It’s not like day cares where you pick your kids up and go home – there’s more involvement, making sure the community has the resources they need, she said.