EDWARDS — A year ago, the Family Learning Center in Edwards was on its knees. Today, the child care center is on its feet and walking into the future.
In November, the learning center announced it would have to close. The fees collected from parents simply couldn’t keep up with expenses. That left many families scrambling to find new places, but still holding out hope for some sort of fiscal salvation. That help came thanks to a grant from Eagle County that gave the center a year’s worth of breathing room. But the need remained.
Earlier this year, Carrie Benway, a longtime board member and volunteer, started work as the Family Learning Center’s program development specialist. She’s started work in earnest to find both long- and short-term help to fill the void between what parents can pay and what the Learning Center’s programs actually cost.
That gap can be pretty steep. Center director Sandy Jennings said a parent paying full “tuition” for infant care — one of the center’s specialties — actually only pays about two-thirds of the actual cost. Further complicating the issue is the fact that not all parents pay the full rate. Since the Family Learning Center is an accredited Early Head Start facility, rates are on a sliding scale based on parents’ ability to pay. That creates an even larger gap between cost and revenue.
So finding money is near the top of Benway’s to-do list. The good news, she said, is the fact that the Vail Valley is a remarkably generous place. There are members of the Learning Center’s board who are second homeowners who believe in the center’s work, she said.
That’s always helpful, and a recent “challenge” grant — in which a donor promises a specific amount of money if it’s matched by others — was completed in less than three weeks.
But at the top of the list is something far more basic: getting out the word that the Family Learning Center is still in business.
“We need to keep letting people know we’re here, and have high quality programs,” Benway said.
The strength of the programs at the Learning Center has been validated by Qualistar Colorado, a nonprofit group focused on early childhood education. That organization recently gave the Learning Center a three-star rating — four is tops — and provides consistent assessments of the work being done at the facility. That work covers kids from 8 weeks to 6 years old.
To help attract parents able to pay the center’s full rate, Benway is also working on partnerships to provide more and better experiences for the kids.
The Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Eagle is helping with gardening, and Cooking Matters, another nonprofit that focuses on education for parents and families, is also planning to host seminars. The Learning Center has a full-sized kitchen, which makes it easier to hold those seminars.
The Walking Mountains Science Center is also helping provide “enrichment” programs, as is Honeywagon, which is talking to kids about recycling and sustainability.
‘TOP OF THE LIST FOR PARENTS’
“We want the Family Learning Center to be at the top of the list for parents,” Benway said.
That also means getting together with kids’ families on a regular basis, so parents can get to know the people who run the center and vice versa. Those parents can be invaluable for center projects. Rebuilding the garden boxes could have taken days, or weeks, with just staffers putting extra time into the project. With the help of some enthusiastic dads, the job was done in less than an afternoon.
The new activity has Jennings excited about the Learning Center’s future. Jennings acknowledged there’s plenty of room for growth, starting with the number of kids enrolled.
But, she said, the days have passed when she would grow teary-eyed thinking about the Learning Center’s future.
“It’s going great right now,” Jennings said. “But financially it will take a while longer.”