Her friends and sister warned her to start looking early, but Rachel Harthan, pregnant with her first child, still was shocked at how difficult it was to find infant care in North Liberty.
Every child care center she called had a waitlist. Desperate, she posted in a Facebook group for local parents — where she found in-home provider Laurie Benner.
“I definitely think North Liberty needs another day care center,” said Harthan, whose daughter is 1 year old. “I felt panicky and worried that I wouldn’t be able to find care before I had my daughter.”
This November, Benner plans to open a child care center in North Liberty with capacity for 200 children, from birth to 12 years old.
She hopes it eases anxiety for parents such as Harthan — whose experience searching for quality child care is common in Iowa, where one in four children lives in an area squeezed for child care availability.
In North Liberty, finding care is especially difficult for parents of infants, as well as families who lack reliable transportation or rely on public assistance, said Laurie Nash, Johnson County’s youth and family services manager.
The state’s reimbursement rate for child care often is less than the market rate.
For parents who work odd hours, finding care is nearly impossible — no North Liberty providers are open in the evenings or on the weekends, according to self-reported data from the Iowa Department of Human Services.
“Not a single provider in North Liberty provides evening or overnight care,” Nash said. “None of them provide weekend care, and none of them identify — they may do this, but none of them identify — that they accept children with special needs.”
Families’ lack of access pushed Benner to open her own child care center, Learning Begins, at 740 Community Dr.
Benner, who will transition away from her in-home program, said she will accept public assistance, stay open until 8 p.m. and be open on the weekends. She plans to hire 30 to 40 people to staff the center’s long hours.
“I want to help the parents that work those hours that can’t find anybody to care for their kids,” Benner said. “This has always been my dream, for many years. ... I want to work with people who have those odd, non-traditional hours because it is so hard for people to find good, quality day care.”
The influx of available child care spots could be good for local businesses, Nash said, many of which are coping with workforce shortages.
“It’s especially hard for single-parent families to work if they don’t have reliable child care,” Nash said. “It also means that for businesses that have people who work evening and weekend shifts, that limits the potential employee pool for them.
“If businesses are having a hard time filling those evening and weekend shifts, it could have to do with there’s not child care during those times.”
Benner already has opened registration for the center and said about 30 slots have been filled — many of them by children who already attend her in-home care, such as Colleen Elin’s 2-year-old and 5-year-old children.
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Elin found Benner through a Craigslist posting six years ago. She said she has felt lucky to have a provider with flexible hours, especially as she’s seen other parents struggle to meet strict pickup and drop-off times elsewhere.
“The nice thing she’s doing for the center is the extended hours and weekend time,” said Elin, who works full-time. “My husband used to do shift work, so that was a concern for me — how are we going to do it if he’s working a 12-hour shift and I’m stuck somewhere? How are we going to do it?”
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