CEDAR RAPIDS — When Shirley Girard got a $10-a-week raise from her job at a gas station, she no longer qualified for free child care at the Linn County Child Development Center through the Department of Human Services.
Making about $300 a week, Girard panicked. She couldn’t afford to pay for child care, which she estimates would have taken 40 percent of her income.
She called the director of the center, who at the time was Chris Carman. He told her not to worry. Later that day, Carman gave her a call, offering her a grant and asking if she could afford to pay $5 a day for child care instead of the full cost.
Girard went back to school and now works at Collins Aerospace as a program planning and financial analyst. Her son is now 22 years old.
The days of struggling to afford child care are long gone, but Girard has never forgotten what the Child Development Center did for her family.
For 50 years, the center has provided child care and preschool for low-income families in Linn County.
Ruth Mund, one of the original directors of the center from 1972 to 1999, was an integral part of starting the center — first run as a nonprofit out of Saint Wenceslaus Catholic Church in the Oakhill Jackson neighborhood before becoming part of Linn County government.
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Mund said families were “desperate for help” and the preschool offered affordable child care. The county took note and in 1972, when the nonprofit was struggling financially, took it on as a county program.
When the center first opened, Mund said she was hiring for $2.25 an hour and would get over 40 applicants for a job.
As director, Mund traveled with “carloads” of parents to the Capitol in Des Moines, carrying cardboard dolls to advocate for affordable child care programs.
Mund said moving from Saint Wenceslaus into the Fillmore Center in the 1980s was like moving into a palace. Last year, the Child Development Center moved from the Fillmore Center into the new Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris Building at 10th Avenue SE and Seventh Street SE in Cedar Rapids.
“Unbelievable,” Mund said about the new building. “All the people who have struggled to get here. The county has done an absolutely awesome job. We’re very grateful. It was worth every day of the last 50 years.”
This year, the center is contracting with Early Head Start to accept 2-year-olds this summer.
Currently, there are about 70 students between 3 and 5 who go to the center, but the Harris Building is an opportunity for growth. The program now has the capacity to accept 96 students.
An industrial kitchen at the Harris Building means the center can offer parents nutrition classes and cooking instruction to students.
A small community fund is available to parents who may be struggling to buy groceries, cover the cost of rent or pay their electric bill.
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“Twenty-five dollars now might keep a parent from losing a job, which would keep them from being evicted. ... All these things can snowball,” said Carman, director of the center from 1999 to 2016. “In my experience, parents are exceedingly grateful for that fund.”
In Linn County, 41 percent of child care providers over the last five years have quit the profession, according to Early Childhood Iowa. The turnover rate at the Child Development Center, however, is much lower than the county average. Officials estimate the turnover rate to be around 3 percent a year, and some of that can be contributed to retirement.
The Child Development Center scored five our of five on the Iowa Quality Rating System — designed to improve the quality of child care programs in the state — before moving into the Harris Building. Child and Youth Development Services Director Gloria Witzberger is confident it will score a five when it is rated again.
English is the second language of over 60 percent of children at the Center.
Teacher Team Leader Kelly Schulte, who has worked at the center for 15 years, said every day she feels love from the students when she walks into work.
“We need quality child care and preschool to give everyone the same opportunity to learn,” Schulte said. “They’re our future.”
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