BOULDER — Families across Montana have been talking about the need for stable childcare options, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, people in the community of Boulder are stepping up to address that need themselves.
Boulder hasn’t had a licensed childcare facility for three years. That’s had a real impact on people like Devyn Ottman, a teacher at Boulder Elementary School. She and her husband have three children, and they had to have eight different people look after their daughter just during a regular school year.
“We’re like a village, and everybody seems to help us out,” Ottman said. “We’ve gotten really lucky and fortunate to meet the people that we have that have been able to watch our kiddos, but it’s just a lot of pieces moving.”
When COVID forced many parents into irregular working hours, Ottman herself stepped in to help watch other children. She said she had friends who wanted to look for jobs but couldn’t because they were afraid they’d have to quit if they couldn’t get stable care arrangements.
“It’s a big missing piece in our community right now,” she said.
Rochelle Hesford runs out-of-school programs in Boulder and several other communities, as director of the 21st Century Community Learning Center Consortium. Currently, she has 75 students in Boulder Elementary’s summer programs – but she says that program alone is far from enough.
“It’s one of the few options, but it becomes not an option for some families because we end at 1:00, and if they go till 5:00, and if they can’t find childcare, they have to find something else for their kid to do,” said Hesford.
In April, Hesford joined others from around the community, forming a working group to start looking at what they could do to help address the need for childcare. Now, they are planning to put together a new childcare program themselves.
The leaders of the working group have begun the process of creating a nonprofit organization. They’re seeking a grant to hire a childcare coordinator, and Hesford has been trying to recruit people to start the process of becoming licensed providers.
Jeff Elliott, superintendent and principal of Boulder Elementary, found out about the working group shortly after starting in the job earlier this year.
“I’m from Boulder, grew up here, so I understand the need for quality daycare,” he said. “It was really impressive to see the amount of support and the amount of work that these people have put in to get a daycare here.”
The next big step for this effort is to find a facility for the future childcare program. They had been looking at using the United Methodist Fellowship Hall in Boulder, but it would not have enough room for the 50 or more kids Hesford has estimated would need the service.
The group then set its sights on a building owned by Kim Smith of Valley Sand and Gravel – currently sitting next to Jim Darcy Elementary in the Helena Valley. They are currently working to buy the building and move it next to Boulder Elementary, where leaders hope they can share some of the school’s facilities, including the kitchen and playground. Boulder Mayor Russell Giulio personally committed money for a deposit on the building while the group is working on a deal.
The group has asked Jefferson County commissioners for $110,000 from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to help pay for the building. On Tuesday, the commission split on the proposal. They are expected to take it up again next week.
Giulio said he’s hopeful the county will support their proposal, but he’s confident they will be able to move forward with the project regardless of their decision.
“Boulder’s always been a can-do community anyway; whenever your neighbor’s down, you help them out,” he said. “I just think it’s a really opportune time.”
Leaders say the lack of childcare may be discouraging young families from moving to Boulder, so they hope starting a new program could have an economic impact for the city.
“For our community to grow, we need to provide that,” Elliott said. “I think it’s a really viable option right now.”
Hesford said she hopes, if their effort is successful, it can serve as an example for other communities in need of childcare options.