This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.
OMAHA — The kids are back.
A longtime vacant corner at 48th and Q Streets — once home to a public elementary school that closed 30 years ago — has a new tenant, with a familiar youthful energy.
The Kids Can Community Center, a child care operation with its own storied past, today is celebrating the opening of its $11 million headquarters on the nearly four-acre campus where Ashland Park School stood for about a century before it was demolished.
Now with twice the space of its old stomping grounds, the nonprofit Kids Can, for the first time in its 115-year history, will offer infant care and can host more activities for kids up to age 13, too.
It’s a small but welcome step in what officials are calling an affordable child care shortage that’s reaching a new urgency, especially as it is linked inextricably to the state’s workforce woes.
“Families across Nebraska are at a crisis point in finding quality, affordable child care — and that is hurting everyone,” says Kathleen Lodl, associate dean at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, whose Nebraska Extension early childhood team led a statewide survey reflecting that sentiment.
Kara Ficke of the We Care for Kids coalition, which partnered in the survey project, said 72% of Nebraska’s children under age 6 live in homes where all adults work. That’s higher than the national average of 67%.
Yet, she said, citing a recent Kids Count report, 11 of 93 Nebraska counties don’t have a licensed child care facility. And 91% of counties that do have services don’t have enough available space to meet demand.
The need has gotten to the point, according to the survey results, that 84% of those questioned agree, and 54% strongly agree, that the state should invest in child care and early learning, as it does with K-12 schools and higher education.
Among other survey findings:
- About 31% of parents with kids 5 and under said they left the workforce because they could not find affordable child care, as did 23% of all parents.
- Nearly 75% said the lack of quality and affordable child care and early learning was a problem of “extreme or very serious” proportions. That was on par with how respondents viewed crime and high housing costs.
- Half said they felt the availability of affordable child care grew worse after the start of the pandemic in early 2020.
Robert Patterson, chief executive of Kids Can, said he felt fortunate to have a philanthropic donor base that propelled the capital campaign through the worst of the pandemic, though the fundraising goal was downsized due to uncertainty surrounding COVID-19.
Among features that will wait are an outdoor sports field and related amenities that Patterson envisions will be available for the community.
He and other child care experts, meanwhile, are stepping up to other challenges that loom for parents and providers.
For example, Patterson was among a united front that spoke recently in support of Legislative Bill 35, which aims to hold, for another three years, the eligibility level for a state child care subsidy.
Right now that’s 185% of the federal poverty level, meaning that for a family of four, household income must be no more than $55,500.
If tightened to 130% this fall as scheduled, the household of four could make no more than $39,000.
Patterson said if that change goes into effect, many parents would face tough decisions. Some likely would shift to part-time work to retain subsidies; others would drop out of the workforce altogether.
Not only would such a change derail some struggling parents’ climb out of poverty, Patterson said, but it also would pull children out of quality early education at places such as Kids Can.
“These kids deserve more. It’s an investment in our future,” he said.
LB 35 has been advanced to full discussion by the Legislature. And because Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Omaha has declared it her priority bill, the matter has a greater chance of being heard.
At Kids Can, about a third of the families served receive a child care subsidy. Patterson said the proportion of private pay families has been increasing. Philanthropy dollars provide “scholarships” to supplement those who may need gap funding.
Gym, six hoops, community room
Among the greatest needs, Patterson said, is infant care. His organization just broadened services to accept babies older than six weeks. The previous minimum was 18 months.
“The younger you get, especially at affordable rates, it’s not out there. Parents have to start thinking about it when they’re four months pregnant,” said Patterson.
With an operating budget of about $4 million, Kids Can last year served 1,066 kids overall, up 32% from the previous year.
Capacity has doubled at the new facility to about 250, including babies, toddlers, preschoolers and students up to 13 years old who come outside school hours. Kids Can staffers also administer after-school programming at seven South and North Omaha elementary schools and run a summer program at Miller Park pavilion.
Patterson said his team is busy trying to add more staff members to activate all areas within the nearly 27,000-square-foot new building at 4768 Q St. — including a STEM classroom and a full-court gymnasium with six hoops and spectator space.
A cafeteria is to double as a community room for neighborhood meetings. All the child care programs are state-licensed.
Storied 115 years
While the move comes in challenging times for the industry, Kids Can leadership is optimistic about the future, noting its hardy history and teams that have adapted amidst societal and other shifts.
The organization was founded in 1908 as part of the nationwide Social Settlement movement to help immigrants.
(The country’s most high-profile settlement became the Hull House, founded by pioneer social worker and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams in 1889 on Chicago’s near-west side.)
The Omaha operation had various locations before its former property was built six decades ago — by Boyd Jones Construction of Omaha, the same company that built the new home.
In 2009, the nonprofit was rebranded to become Kids Can Community Center. Wanting to remain rooted in the neighborhood, leadership sought out and was the winning bidder on the old Ashland Park grounds. The school building had served as a storage facility during its final decade, before Omaha Public Schools tore it down in 2002.
Patterson — who this year marks 25 years with the organization, the last dozen as CEO — appreciates the visibility of the new site along the Q Street corridor.
He is pleased there was no disruption of services during the transition and is committed to serving more families.
“I want to make sure these kids have just as much opportunity for success as I did,” he said.
Additional highlights of the survey:
- Younger voters are most likely to say lack of quality and affordable child care and early learning is acute (85% of 18-34 year olds, for example), but a majority of seniors (that includes 73% of the 55-64 age group) also view it as extremely or very serious.
- Suburbanites had the gravest view of the child care situation, but it was deemed a problem in every type and size of community.
- About 88% said they “support” the state investing in ensuring that more working families have access to affordable and quality child care and early learning; 58% “strongly support” a state investment.
Conducted by New Bridge Strategy, the survey questioned 500 voters throughout Nebraska through live telephone interviews in early February. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.38% for the overall sample and varied for subgroups.