ASHLAND -- It was common for Park Street Brethren Preschool & Child Care to receive calls about infant and toddler care -- even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the center recently expanded its services, Director Mackenzie Howell said she'd sometimes receive two or three calls per week from parents seeking care for children under 2 1/2 years old.
"They were disappointed, and we were, too. We didn't really have anywhere to send them," Howell said.
Park Street Brethern Preschool and Child Care received a $2,000 grant from the Ashland County Community Foundation in early 2021, allowing the addition of a toddler and infant room.
The toddler room opened for a soft launch in March, but it is expected to expand in a few months. The infant room will also open this summer.
Without any advertising, the toddler room filled in a matter of weeks. As of now, only one spot is available for Wednesday and Friday. And though the infant room doesn't open until June at the soonest, there's already a waiting list forming.
"It was only word-of-mouth, and it filled up like that," Howell said.
Finding affordable and accessible childcare is a struggle for many Ashland County women, according to Brenda Uselton, the incoming chair for the Ashland County Community Foundation's Women’s Fund steering committee.
"We've had conversations with childcare providers, business leaders and nonprofits, and what we've found is that childcare is a major concern here in Ashland County. The need far outweighs the supply, especially for infants and toddlers," Uselton said.
The 2019 Ashland County Health Assessment reports 12 percent of Ashland County parents had missed work in the past year due to childcare. Conversations with area employers over the past year indicate that number likely increased over the past year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Uselton said.
She has seen her own daughter-in-laws struggle to secure childcare in Ashland.
"They say there's nothing available. Nothing for childcare for infants," Uselton said.
There are eight to 10 childcare centers in Ashland County, but only a handful of them provide the service all day and only from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Also, those that take infants and toddlers are very limited.
Affordability is a factor, too, Uselton said. Parents, especially single parents, also have a challenging time finding affordable childcare services, she continued.
The current lack of childcare leaves parents -- often women -- forced from the workforce.
In 2021, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation reported 11 percent of US parents had turned down a job due to lack of childcare. The lack of childcare is seen as such a significant barrier to workforce development that 89 percent of employers are looking for childcare solutions for their employees, the Chamber of Commerce Foundation went on to say in an executive briefing titled "Essential Care for Essential Workers."
Jane Roland, the incoming Women’s Fund Steering Committee vice chair, said having quality childcare available for employees might be the turning point for a new company as to whether it is coming to Ashland or not.
“When quality childcare is available, businesses are better positioned to recruit and retain high-quality job applicants. It reduces absenteeism and turnover,” she said.
Building a Solution in Ashland
Earlier this month, the Women's Fund Steering Committee announced the launch of a two-year plan to increase access and affordability to local childcare.
The initiative focuses on strategic -- instead of reactive -- grant making that will support expansion of existing childcare services and likely launch a new childcare center in the industrial park, too.
"The women's fund is 16 years old, and in those 16 years, we've always done reactive grant making. Organizations make an application to us, telling us how it benefits women and children," ACCF's Chief Program Officer Kristen Aspin said. "With this, we're going into strategic grant making, looking at how can we make a difference."
The Women's Fund will keep distributing grants this year, but only to support childcare offering. Watson said existing agencies can apply for the grant by May 15.
But further, the steering committee will also support the opening of new childcare center in the county with intentions to serve women and families that have unmet needs. The committee will work with strategic partners, including local businesses, government and faith community, to raise the new facility’s needed funding.
The steering committee has tentatively focused on starting the new childcare center at or near the industrial park.
“Some of the industries that we had spoken to said that they have had people, primarily females, that had to turn down second- or third-shift jobs because of no access to childcare during those hours,” Aspin said.
Opening the facility close to the industrial park will benefit thousands of workers there, she said, and increase the possibility of collaborative effort between the initiative and businesses, which will help the service’s affordability.
The Women’s Fund will act as a catalyst and funder of the project instead of a childcare provider and the center’s operator.
Aspin said the team is working on an assessment of the employees and employers at the industrial park. The assessment will offer information such as the space, staffing, hours of operation needed at the childcare center.
The team will also set a fundraising goal after receiving the required information, she said. The donations for the new center will be held separately from the Women's Fund in a pass-through account.
Aspin said the new childcare center’s service will not be free but could be more affordable through a combination of endowments, subsidization from employers and grants from the government and other organizations.
Donations to the Women’s Fund Childcare Initiative pass-through fund may be made online at www.ashlandforgood.org or by mailing a check with Women’s Fund Childcare Initiative in the subject line to Ashland County Community Foundation.
Richland Source Reporter Peng Chen contributed to this report.