Local entities are planning to improve the child care situation in Martinsville-Henry County, and things will happen quickly, Martinsville City Manager Leon Towarnicki said.

In recent months the city, the county and the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Commission have been looking “at a number of priorities that impact the community,” Towarnicki said during one of two community-input meetings Thursday.

Other groups involved in meetings since April have been United Way, social services, the Chamber of Commerce, Henry County Public Schools and the hospital, he said.

Two of the key necessities for the community that were identified were new housing and dependable childcare. Insufficient childcare not only affects residents’ ability to work but also to take classes at Patrick Henry Community College, Towarnicki said.

The working group, which does not have a name, applied for a $15,000 grant to study childcare needs to the Department of Housing and Community Development. To their surprise, he said, they got news last week that the grant is “now extended to $50,000.” The Harvest Foundation will be the fiscal agent of the grant, he said.

The process now is in the official step of getting input from across the community, he said.

Sheryl Agee, impact officer/team leader for Harvest, said, “The community input piece is needed to make this project more forward.”

To that end, the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service (based at the University of Virginia) is conducting a community needs assessment regarding childcare for children from birth to age 12. The survey asks about barriers families face, including hours, costs and locations, and what is need to expand childcare.

Organizers plan to “work with local childcare providers, because we have a lot of great systems already in the community,” Agee said.

In fact, a specific focus group will be comprised of only childcare providers.

The surveys will be issued through workplaces, training programs and social services.

The next step would be to use to information learned from the surveys to develop a plan on how to meet childcare needs, even if it involves building a new center.

“If there is an identified need for a facility,” Towarnicki said, a site would have to be identified, its size and capacity would be determined, conceptual drawings would be made and funding would be determined.

Planners would move quickly to apply for grants. Options include the Appalachian Regional Community Grant, which accepts applications from October through the end of December, and the Community Development Block Grant, which in 2020 will open its new round of accepting applications.

“It’s not something that’s going to linger. If it moves forward, it’s going to move forward on a pretty fast track,” Towarnicki said.

The bulk of the meeting was dedicated to comments from attendees. They included:

  • The survey also could be distributed through the library and information about it shared over the city’s television station.
  • Most local day cares close at 5:30 p.m. or 6 p.m. An after-school program at a middle school is open until 7 p.m. on school days.
  • Many parents need day care at night, but day-care providers don’t tend to hear about them, because they find other options. Some people who babysit for parents who work at night have the children enrolled in after-school programs, in a “layered approach to child care.”
  • Late-night child care in a center is not feasible, because children should be home before bedtime and be able to sleep normally all night long.
  • One day care center offered Saturday care for a while, but had to discontinue it because “It was not beneficial to the center.”
  • Most local day care centers are full with waiting lists.
  • It is difficult to get childcare for babies. Few centers offer it, and it’s difficult for them to do so because it’s more expensive in terms of staff-to-baby ratio, equipment and space needed.
  • Employers have swing shifts and night shifts, which poses difficulties for parents.
  • It’s difficult to find childcare centers in the rural areas outside Martinsville.
  • There always is a shortage of bus drivers and childcare workers. One provider said many newly hired workers either don’t come back to work after they start or do not pay proper attention to the children.
  • Workers in an increasingly diverse workforce want options other than church day cares.
  • Having childcare on days their children are too sick to go to school or day care is a problem for many workers.
  • Perhaps large employers could buy ahead several slots in a day care, then offer the use of those slots to employees with children as a company benefit.
  • Mary Jordan, a retired teacher and retired director of the Spencer-Penn Centre, said she was attending the meeting on behalf of Horsepasture Christian Church, there to help determine if it would be feasible and helpful to open a childcare center in that church.

On improving childcare in the area, “there’s a lot of work that has to happen between now and that end point,” Towarnicki said.

Once the input from the surveys is compiled, a management team will review it as part of overseeing how the local entities are managing the process under the grant, he said. Local facilitators would have to come up with a plan based on the input.

Then it may “move forward to a facility – if that’s where this leads,” he said.

“The thing that is exciting about this to me,” Heritage Foundation President Allyson Rothrock said, “is that the unemployment rate in less than a decade has gone from 20% to 3%.”

However, in all the efforts to bring jobs back to the area, problems with childcare sneaked up on everyone, she said: “I didn’t realize how big this need was. This is part of the service that’s got to be addressed.”

Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.

Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.

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