Originally published by Keith County News
During a recent winter walk, Laura Kemp’s son, Emerson, dropped some science.
Looking upward, the two-year-old pointed to a cloud and explained how the white whisp suspended in the bright blue sky was full of water that could someday fall to Earth as rain. Kemp didn’t expect to get a lesson in meteorology from her toddler that day, but it was a welcome surprise.
“I was honestly blown away,” Kemp, Early Childhood Community Coordinator for Keith County Communities for Kids, said. Similar moments happen frequently, and she’s certain his exposure to early childhood education plays no small part in encouraging Emerson’s innate curiosity.
“I see a huge difference in him just from those one to two days a week,” Kemp said. “He’s learned so much there.”
The Kemps are among a growing number of young families building a life in Keith County. The past five years saw a nearly 20% increase in 30- to 34-year-olds moving to the community in search of a simpler pace of life, safety and security and low housing costs. With young families comes a need for quality childcare, but many in the county feel like their options are limited.
A 2019 Communities for Kids study found almost 98% of Keith County respondents believed affordable and accessible childcare was important for the community, but 64% said it was difficult to find locally, and 61% didn’t feel the community had enough childcare options. That’s concerning for ESU 16’s High Plains Early Learning Connection Coordinator Cheryl Roche and her colleagues.
“It’s important that parents have choices,” she said.
Children grow by leaps and bounds in their early years, but research has only just begun to scratch the surface of how much we learn before we reach kindergarten.
“For the longest time people didn’t understand babies and brain development,” Roche said. “The research that has taken place over the past 10 years has really highlighted the importance. We used to think that babies just sat there. That they were like a sponge and just soaked things in – that they weren’t really going to learn educational things until kindergarten. We didn’t know how important the pre-Kindergarten years were.”
Research shows early childhood education is influential in both individual and community wellbeing. Programs can determine lifelong success, with high-quality curriculum correlating with higher graduation rates and a reduced need for grade repetition. The CDC also indicates quality early childcare plays a role in building stronger communities by reducing crime, child abuse and neglect, as well as fostering economic growth through higher earnings potential, health care cost reduction, and more.
The Communities for Kids study found a gap in childcare options in Keith County. There were 355 children under 6 years old with all available parents working, but 240 total childcare spots between licensed providers and public schools. That means a potential 115 children without a place to go and potentially not meeting their early development needs. The county’s existing 14 licensed providers are doing great work, both Kemp and Roche agreed, but the growing need for childcare is outpacing their capacity. The community needs more options to make sure its children have a strong foundation.
“The brain grows the most in the first five years,” Roche said. “That’s really where those neurons are pruned back and connections are made – not just for a healthy child, but a healthy adult. What we do in early education really impacts what we do later in life and how the brain is wired. And what we are capable of doing as we grow.”
Childcare gaps can have ramifications beyond an individual child’s development. Inadequate availability costs Nebraska families $489 million in household income from missed work and reduced hours, according to First Five Nebraska. Childcare gaps cost Nebraska businesses $234 million annually due to decreased productivity and employee turnover. The same report found that the statewide childcare gap reduces state tax revenues by $21 million per year.
Ogallala-Keith County Chamber of Commerce Director Karla Scott said licensed providers can make a world of difference for local businesses, job creators and the economy. Before moving to Keith County, she built two small businesses in Colorado, and she credits local providers for giving her the room to succeed.
“I had that comfort level that my boys were being taken care of,” Scott said. “It helped me to grow and employ 15 people.”
In Keith County, Scott said awareness of licensed providers is increasing, thanks in part to the hard work of local business leaders and organizations like the Keith County Foundation Fund. That’s a good thing, as high-quality childcare can attract both businesses and new residents.
“We want to be the catalyst that supports a strong economic community and culture,” Scott said. “It’s hard to do that when you aren’t able to have the staff or people available that want to live here. It’s all coming together and it’s exciting. There’s a lot of work to do, but there’s awareness and there are conversations happening.”
For new parents, the idea of sending their child to a center or stranger’s home for hours can be unnerving. Before moving to Ogallala, the Kemps lived in a town of about 35,000 in Wyoming. She was able to stay at home to care for the newborn Emerson at the time, but finding information on providers was difficult.
“As a mom, I felt completely lost looking at what to expect,” Laura said. “I feel bad for those people who are moving to a new community who don’t know who to trust. It’s going to be trial and error. It’s a very hard process to go through.”
Thankfully, moving back to Evan’s home county meant the Kemps had personal connections to make that decision easier. Other community members or newcomers may not have the same experience. The county needs to be prepared to reduce the quality childcare gap as young families continue to find a place in Keith County.
“We need to be prepared,” Roche said. “That’s a community reality.”
Access to quality childcare has a calming effect on the Kemp household. Emerson receives the socialization only peers can provide, while Laura and Evan can go to work reassured their son is in good hands. When they are together they can focus on each other – and maybe some more science lessons.
“I cried the first couple of times I dropped him off, but that’s an adjustment for every parent,” she said. “I don’t feel like I have to worry about my son getting hurt. I don’t have to worry about any of that, I can go about my day and do what I need to get done. When he is home, I can focus solely on him and enjoy those moments.”