A few months ago, Tricia Shields was having a regular day at work.
“I think I was daydreaming at my desk,” says Shields, a resident of Parker, Colorado, who was at the time working at a kidney care center in Denver.
She says she was tired of only seeing her kids at bedtime, and her job was really getting to her. She was working at a treatment center for people with kidney disease. She says she’d get close to patients, and then fairly often, they’d die.
“It was wearing on me,” says Shields. “I just needed a change. I was looking for a bright start to something new.”
That day at her desk, she was playing music on her phone when ad came on.
“It was like, ‘Do you want to start your own business? Do you want to be with your kids? Do you want to be around kids?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, I do!’” Shields recalls. “It said, ‘Click here’ and I never do that -- I never click on ads -- but I did.”
The ad was from a company called MyVillage. It’s one of at least three startups, including WeeCare and Wonderschool, that are trying to get more people to start child care centers in their homes, and right now they’re making their way into the Mountain West.
MyVillage has about 80 locations across Colorado and Montana. WeeCare is planning to start locations next year in Nevada. Wonderschool, primarily located on the coasts, entered the Denver area a few months ago.
“We wanted to build a solution for the average American, and so we knew we needed to start in the middle of the U.S. not, not the coast,” says Beth Szymanski, co-founder and CFO of MyVillage. “Our mantra is that we make it easy to start, run and grow a home-based child care program.”
Szymanski says there are a lot of things beyond taking care of kids that caregivers have to deal with -- like licensing, marketing, a website, taxes, plus all the paperwork for getting subsidies for basic things like the kids’ food. The idea is that the startup deals with all that stuff, in addition to offering services like mentorship from other care providers. In exchange, the startup gets 10% of the eventual profit.
“We want to make it a no-brainer solution for them so that they don't have to worry about the paperwork,” says Szymanski. “They can just focus on the care with the children.”
The Center for American Progress mapped child care deserts across the country, defining a child care desert as “any census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 that contains either no child care providers or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots.”
Some states in the Mountain West, like much of the country, appear to have a real child care shortage.
“About 72% of people in Nevada live in a child care desert,” says Simon Workman, who led the report and directs the Early Childhood Policy group with the Center for American Progress. “Utah was actually the highest state in our analysis, with about 77% of people living in child care deserts.”
Colorado and Idaho came in around the national average -- about half the people in those states live in child care deserts. And Wyoming comes in on the lower end, with about 34% of people in that state living in child care deserts.
It’s important to note that the analysis only looked at licensed child care providers, so it’s entirely possible that in some communities deemed “deserts” the child care need is in fact being met by friends, family or other unlicensed providers. But one thing is clear.
“The child care market is broken,” says Workman.
He says daycare is getting more and more expensive, and no one seems to be winning.
“Parents can't afford to pay anymore, but providers are struggling to make ends meet,” he says. “Child care teachers are making about $10 an hour on average across the country.”
And burnout is a real issue. To make matters worse, Workman adds, this is not just a problem of babysitting. Access to child care is part of a much bigger picture. It’s about allowing people to keep living in rural areas, and it’s about parents -- especially mothers -- being able to contribute to the economy.
“Children need to be somewhere in order for parents to work,” he says. “In the places where there is more availability of child care, we see an increased maternal labor force participation.”
Could companies like MyVillage, WeeCare and Wonderschool help close the child care gap in our region?
“When I saw what they were doing, it was like, ‘Wow, yes,’” says Louise Stoney, an independent consultant specializing in early care and education finance and policy. “This is what my brain believed was possible, but I had no clue how to make it happen. These young people do.”
Stoney says that litany of onerous tasks involved in running a child care center -- taxes, marketing, the paperwork to qualify for food subsidies -- is a big reason there’s a high rate of burnout among child care professionals. They’re swamped.
“Particularly for home-based providers, they're trying to run a small business out of their home and they're spending their days and a lot of their energy focusing on caring for children,” says Stoney. “But then they have to spend their nights and their weekends trying to run a business.”
Stoney, who co-founded Opportunities Exchange and the Alliance for Early Childhood Finance — two nonprofits that aim to make child care more sustainable — agrees with the startups that small, in-home child care centers are the answer to child care shortages, and that they need to be easier and less lonely to run. And, she says, their approach is very familiar. It’s called “shared services.”
“The idea of shared services has been around in other industries forever,” says Stoney. “We've got this tool called Airbnb that allows lots of people to run small businesses out of their homes.”
But it’s a relatively new idea in the child care industry, which is a big reason why Stoney co-founded Opportunities Exchange, specifically aimed at promoting the shared services approach in child care.
“How do we help them to succeed? How do we link them together? How do we redefine in some way what it means to be a child care center?” says Stoney.
Maybe that new definition will involve a lot more locations than just traditional child care centers, or providers’ homes. Stoney points to Early Connections Learning Centers, a nonprofit based in Colorado Springs.
“They won an Early Childhood Innovations Prize for a new idea that they are starting, which is what we call ‘micro centers,’” says Stoney. “What they want to do is open up single classroom centers in public and charter schools.”
Maybe the new definition will also include a lot more places like Tricia Shields’ newly renovated basement in Parker, Colorado. It has a reading corner with comfy pillows, costumes, toys, materials for coloring and crafts. There’s even a tiny urinal in the bathroom.
With help from MyVillage, Shields just got her license to work with toddlers, and now she’s ready to open the doors of Lil’ Angels Early Education.
She remembers a conversation she had with one of her patients before she left her old job.
“He was like ‘So, you’re an entrepreneur,’ and I was like, ‘Well, I guess, that’s a really big word,’” says Shields. “And he’s like, ‘No but you are, you’re starting your own business. You’re an entrepreneur. How does that feel?’ And it kinda hit me, it was like, ‘That feels good.’”
Child care startups are betting that a lot more people will want to share in that feeling.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.