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Lakes Region childcare nonprofit overcomes state funding reductions

One-year-old Derik Matthews peers over mom Sally’s shoulder as she talks to infant teacher Lindsey Spadafore at the Belmont Early Learning Center. Meghan Siegler. (click for larger version)
April 28, 2010
LAKES REGION — Decreased funding from the state has posed financial challenges for Lakes Region Child Care Services, but Director Marti Ilg says it's not all bad – the hardships have forced the organization to get creative, and the community has rallied around the nonprofit to help it continue to provide quality childcare to low and moderate-income families.

Quality childcare for all

LRCCS offers childcare at its refurbished old mill facility in Laconia as well as at the Belmont Early Learning Center at the old mill in Belmont. The facility in Laconia, which also houses the LRCCS offices, is licensed for 110 children. The Belmont facility is licensed for 45 children and serves Belmont, Tilton, Sanbornton, Concord and Gilmanton. Both facilities have classrooms for infants, toddlers, 3 and 4-year-olds, and 4 and 5-year-olds.

In Laconia, there's a large open area used for training that LRCCS also opens up to area childcare providers. Ilg said that LRCCS works with the Laconia School District to align its curriculum with the elementary schools, better preparing the children for the transition to school.

Students during a recent visit to the 3 and 4-year-old classroom in Laconia showed off their new recycling bin, acquired during a field trip to the Laconia City Works Department. It was Earth Day, and the kids were learning the value of recycling, as well as what can and cannot be recycled.

The playground in Laconia is a natural playscape designed to accommodate a larger age span. They can use different elements of the playground "as their bodies and minds grow and change," Ilg said.

There's also a garden that grows fruits and vegetables, as well as a butterfly garden.

Belmont's playground is "adequate," Ilg said, and will stay adequate for the foreseeable future. She had hired an architect to design plans for a new playground, with a bike path, a garden, more trees, a climbing wall and new fencing. Because of funding issues, those plans have been shelved for now.

Both facilities have an onsite meal service. The Laconia facility's cook has been featured on Rachael Ray and Jaime Oliver's websites for her "innovative" cooking, which Ilg said is actually more old-fashioned than innovative. It involves cooking from scratch and using fresh ingredients.

"It's really home cooking," Ilg said.

All of this has been available for 40 years to children whose families rely on state support. It was started by Sarah Pilliod as Lakes Region Daycare in 1967 to provide care as more and more women began to enter the workforce. Though the nonprofit has been constantly reassessing its purpose and services over the years, it has always strived to meet the needs of the community.

Now, state funding cuts are making that goal harder to reach.

State funding reduced

Ilg said they were informed of the impending funding changes in July 2009. For the first time ever, a waiting list for state childcare assistance started in October. It is expected to reach 3,000 by June. When that happened, families that had been eligible before were put on the wait list and had to either find childcare elsewhere or pay full rates. Ilg said LRCCS has the lowest rates for a licensed childcare facility in a 50-mile radius, yet some families that were put on the wait list still can't afford it.

"A lot of people chose to stay home, to quit their job, or found non-licensed care," she said.

Between the removal of service fees and the elimination of quality awards, LRCCS lost approximately $106,000 in funding, or 10 percent of its annual budget.

"Those (decisions) were direct hits to childcare organizations," she said.

In March, the state also decreased the amount paid for every child on subsidy.

Ilg cited one example of a single, professional mom making a good wage, with three kids. She had been paying $90 per week. When this funding decrease went into effect, her rate went up to $300 per week.

Community support

Ilg said the upside of the funding challenge has been the collaborations between local service organizations, such as St. Vincent de Paul's. Together, these organizations pooled their resources and developed support funds for people on the wait list and for those whose state subsidies have decreased. Ilg called it a "total grassroots" effort, spearheaded by State Representative Bill Johnson. They developed a model complete with forms and other necessary paperwork and brought it to Early Learning NH "so other communities can do this," Ilg said.

She said that Lakes Region Child Care Services is working with organizations that may have been considered "competitors" in the past in terms of funding. For example, LRCCS, the Boys & Girls Club of the Lakes Region, Laconia Parks and Recreation and Project Extra! are hosting the first annual Walk for Youth on May 22.

"If things had stayed the course, we wouldn't be working together," Ilg said.

Ilg also credited individuals and smaller groups, such as the Belmont Board of Selectmen, for helping the organization out during this time. The selectmen allowed the Belmont Early learning Center to continue its lease at the same cost per month it has been paying, with no increases.

"There are people who are responding to the need, and it's wonderful," Ilg said.

Changes within

LRCCS has also tightened its belt to cope with some of the funding challenges. This includes little things, such as turning off the lights manually instead of with an electric timer and switching to Metrocast. Each of those changes saved $200 per month. Ilg said they also eliminated two administrative positions, which helped offset the $106,000 shortfall.

Hope for the future

Ilg said that in terms of state funding, it looks like the situation is stabilizing. She went to a legislative hearing in Concord two weeks ago, where it was decided that there would be no further cuts to childcare services. Furthermore, the state will be providing $1 million to get 200 children off the wait list.

"I'm hoping that we'll go up from here," she said.

Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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