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Jefferson City, Cole County leaders discuss child care crisis

by Alex Naughton | April 30, 2023 at 4:02 a.m.

"Being a mom is like juggling. Except the balls are screaming and covered in food."

When work is thrown into the equation, the circus act of parenting gets even harder.

Lauren Golden, the founder of The Free Mama Movement, shared her poetic description of what it's like to be a parent Friday with Jefferson City and Cole County leaders of non-profit organizations, businesses and community groups who are working to tackle a child care crisis making it all the more difficult for working parents to get by.

On Friday, six of those leaders participated in a panel at the State of the City & State to discuss how they're facing the crisis.

Sitting side-by-side on the stage in the Capitol Plaza Hotel and Convention Center ballroom, the six leaders fielded questions from Gary Plummer, the president/CEO of the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce.

On the panel was Theresa Verslues, the vice president of the United Way of Central Missouri; Shauna Kerperin, who coordinates Blair Oaks early childhood program and works with its Parents As Teachers program; Stormy Anderson, the director of Human Resources at SSM Health/St. Mary's Hospital; Paula Benne, the owner of C&S Business Services; Lakaisha Sutherland, the owner of Joy & Gladness Academy; and Michael Whelan, the operations director of Unilever.

Benne is also the chairwoman of the chamber's workforce coalition. In that role, Plummer said, Benne focused her efforts on child care. He asked her why she focused on child care and how she's engaged with that system.

Benne said the coalition identified child care as "one of the critical issues" for the community's workforce. Since 2019, she said, nine child care centers have been lost in Jefferson City, not including the home-run centers that were hit by COVID.

She said those losses hurt hundreds of families.

Also, she explained, losing those centers put more of a burden on the ones remaining.

"They're stressed. They don't have staffing. They're not at capacity because they can't find enough staff. I know my workers are on the waiting list to get into a child care center," Benne said.

Fortunately, local businesses were eager to help, she said.

She said Verslues came up with an idea to start a program that matched businesses with child care centers. The partnership between the businesses and child care centers allowed the centers to get support and funding they otherwise didn't have.

If a worker or leader at a center had a financial question, they could call their partner at their matched business for advice.

"My partner, she called, she's like, 'My refrigerator's out.' With a few phone calls in this great community, I can buy a refrigerator, we can have it delivered, and she didn't have to close down her center," Benne said.

After Benne was finished, Plummer asked Verslues to explain what she's been doing in regard to child care.

Verslues said United Way has an early childhood initiative that's been running for 15 years. Over the years, she said, they've done training, including teaching conscious discipline, which is a method of emotional self-regulation for children.

She said United Way has been doing its work in Cole, Osage, Moniteau and Miller counties and, similar to the workforce coalition, identified the loss of child care centers as a critical issue.

The organization joined the coalition and has been brainstorming ways to face the crisis ever since.

Plummer jumped in to ask Kerperin how she's involved in these discussions and what it means for her to be recognized as a community leader in the child care space.

Two years ago, she said, her program was asked to work with the state to coordinate early childhood programs. Through this, they got together with Verslues and the United Way and eventually the workforce coalition.

At the coalition, she said, they've been evaluating available resources, such as state grants, and setting goals. Those goals included supporting child care centers already in business, bringing new centers in and showing appreciation for those providers.

In an attempt to attract the future workforce to the field of child care, Kerperin said, they've been visiting students and educating them about the field.

Kerperin was also involved in the program that matched businesses with child care centers.

"By supporting those providers and elevating them to be business professionals and connecting them with businesses that can help support them, we're seeing that we're gonna build that space of child care. If you're going to come in here as a new business into our community, you're going to look at schools and child care," Kerperin said. "If you don't have a space where your child's going to come in and be healthy, safe and ready to learn, you're going to think twice about coming into that community."

Plummer threw the discussion over to Whelan after Kerperin was finished to ask why the partnership between business and child care is good and how it's effective.

Whelan said the child care ecosystem needs a shock and said he liked Fitzwater's earlier use of the term "moonshot." He said the city needs to make sure it has a vision, or a strong compass, guiding efforts.

With the hours his employees work, Whelan said, he quickly realized the importance of affordable child care.

He said Unilever is almost ready to initiate a subsidy program to help offset child care costs for employees. He said it benefits employees and will build relationships in the community.

"I never thought I'd learn so much about child care. I used to call it daycare, and Paula would give me a swack on the back of the head and say it's child care. I think for us, it's really about how we've become more engaged to help an area that's maybe not a focal point for many people," Whelan said.

Plummer said Sutherland lost her daycare in the tornado in 2019 and asked what her journey has looked like since then.

Sutherland said her daycare was a 24-hour center until it was destroyed. In the aftermath, it was a struggle to find a space to replace it.

For a while, she said, they switched to in-home care. Her mother took care of the infants and Sutherland took care of the preschool kids.

Then COVID-19 hit and she had to shut down again.

It wasn't until 2022 that Joy & Gladness reopened. First, they were only open during the morning. After a couple of months, however, she started partnering with Benne and Verslues' partnership program and was able to expand her center.

Joy & Gladness is partnered with Unilever, Sutherland said. That partnership means they're back to running as a 24-hour center.

They'll also be opening on weekends soon, she said.

"It's just such a blessing to have the community of Jefferson City, United Way, Child Care Aware able to reach out to me before my doors were closed," Sutherland said.

Plummer gave Anderson the reins to make the final remarks of the panel.

"The experience for St. Mary's has been amazing," Anderson said.

She said St. Mary's is partnered with Show-Me Child Care. While the intent was to give back to the center and support them, she said, the partnership has been symbiotic.

In a show of appreciation, the owner of Show-Me Child Care has had the kids make drawings and pins for the employees at St. Mary's.

On the other side, St. Mary's has their resident Santa and Easter Bunny come and visit the kids at the center.

"What it's about is really just making that connection, and I just can't tell you how phenomenal of an experience it's been," Anderson said.

See also:

Five things we learned about Missouri’s child care crisis

Print Headline: Supporting a work-life balance City, county leaders discuss childcare crisis


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