It Takes a Village: How Collaboration Helped a Small Town in Northern Wisconsin Add Important Childcare

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The old saying goes that “it takes a village to raise a child”.

Today, it takes the entire village, city, or town—employers, families, and government—to raise a childcare center.

Gabby Sorano needed the support of all three to open the 35-hole Antigo Child Care Center last year in the city of 8,100 people 80 miles northwest of Green Bay.

Langlade County, where Antigo is located, is a childcare desert: an area with either no childcare or where there is less than one place for every three children. Langlade currently has 1 childcare placement for every 4.3 children, the highest percentage in the 10-county North Central Wisconsin region.

Sorano was aware of the area’s shortage after her son lost a spot during an epidemic. So when a childcare center in Antiguo closed, the former schoolteacher saw an opportunity to fill the void.

To open, Sorano has overcome pretty much every symptom of the early childhood education industry’s broken business model: low teacher salaries, space needs and costly building upgrades, organizational reviews and inspections, and exorbitant tuition fees that don’t cover all of the center’s operating costs.

Combined, she said, the obstacles could prevent even the most passionate person from opening a position. Sorano’s idea needed a lot of community support before she could reassure her family, her children’s families, and employers in the area that the Antiguo Child Care Center could survive in the long term.

Fortunately, Langlade County was ready. According to Angie Close, CEO of Langlade County Economic Development Corp., it just needs Sorano.

“It definitely took collaboration and the right person. Gabby is the star,” said Close. “We were blessed that Gabby would step up and make that leap.”

Here’s how the Antigo Region is rallying to support Sorano so you can open Antigo Child Care in July 2022.

Antigo, Langlade was already viewing childcare as a matter of the workforce

Close said Langlade County learned during the pandemic that a lack of adequate childcare cost its economy about $15 million in 2019. The county formed a childcare task force to promote community collaboration and to send the message that childcare is a workforce issue.

Owner and director Gabe Sorano fixes Montana’s hair on Friday, April 21, 2023, at Antigo Child Care Center in Antigo, Wisconsin (Tork Mason/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

“Childcare is an important part of our talent attraction,” said Close. “Without childcare, our workforce challenges will continue to grow.”

City agencies, county agencies, state grants, and Childcaring Inc. Inc., Central Wisconsin’s regional child care resource and referral agency, provided the necessary time, support, and funding to help Sorano overcome some early hurdles.

Sorano identified a building on Fifth Avenue, formerly used as a child care center, as the space for her new business. It turned out that the building was owned by the Antigo Housing Authority, who had agreed to renovate and remodel the space into classrooms for 35 children.

“We couldn’t take it at first,” Sorano said.

Close and other city and county officials will also assist Sorano in applying for and securing a Main Street Bounceback grant from Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. To help with startup costs. The public also contributed $7,100 to a GoFundMe campaign for playground equipment.

That wasn’t enough.

The family fee does not cover the full cost of care

Everyone knows that childcare is expensive. Some may know that early childhood educators may get paid more to work in a convenience store.

Sheila DuVerney (right) and Gabby Sorano line up kids to go inside after playing in the playground on Friday, April 21, 2023, at Antigo Child Care Center in Antigo, Wisconsin (Turk Mason/USA Today Network – Wisconsin)

What many of the public don’t know or notice is that the fees and family benefits that help low-income families afford child care don’t come close to covering the center’s entire budget.

“People don’t realize that their family’s fees go towards a lot of things,” Sorano said. “There are salaries for employees, toys, food, maintenance, rent, utilities, consumable supplies, and many other things.”

This is where Sorano got stuck. Its business plan showed that scholarships and program grants cover only two-thirds of the projected operating costs of the centre. The business plan left little room for improving pay and benefits for teachers, a priority for Sorano. There was no room for raising the already high fees that families would be required to pay.

It was an amazing moment, said Close.

“I didn’t realize what the people taking care of your kids were charging because that’s all the centers can pay them,” Close said. “You can assume all you want, but when you get real data that shows these numbers, it’s ‘Oh, my God.'” ”

Sorano, Close and others tried to think of another source of income Antigo Child Care could tap into, and a creative way to bridge the gap and provide the service that everyone in Langlade County knows is essential.

It turns out Sorano wasn’t the only one looking to do more about the challenge of childcare.

“Engaging anyone in the workforce helps society as a whole”

The answer Sorano found was to offer a graduated partnership opportunity to local employers.

Here’s how it works: Local businesses can pay the Antigo Child Care Center a monthly stipend, which Sorano uses to augment teachers’ salaries and pay a variety of items described in the partnership agreement.

In return, the company’s workers get priority access to six, eight, or 10 slots in the ACCC, depending on partnership level, and employees receive a weekly discount on sponsorship. Two organizations got involved: Volm Companies Inc. and Unified School District of Antigo.

Volm, part of the Antigo business community since 1966, subscribes to the Six Layer. It’s unclear if the partnership led directly to the retention of any of Volm’s 550 employees, said Linda Esker, Volm’s director of human resources. But, she said, Volm looked at other measures to gauge their relevance and success.

“Our agreement with Gabe is really key to getting people into the workforce,” said Esker. “It would mean getting people into the Volm workforce, which is the hope, but getting anyone into the workforce helps the community as a whole. I’m just not competitive with other employers if there are more people for me to take advantage of.”

Sorano said each partnership enables her to pay her teachers more, which is one of her biggest concerns about starting the Antigo Child Care Center. She said she structured the teachers’ contracts so that if partnerships existed, the teachers were paid more. Partnerships and the business plan are what underpin Antigo Child Care Center, she said.

“I am very grateful for these partnerships,” Sorano said.

The building blocks of growth

The community collaboration that helped Sorano launch the Antigo Child Care Center got everyone involved in thinking about what they could do to meet the needs of the area.

Volm’s operations are open 24/7, but second or third shift childcare is practically non-existent in Antigo and many other Wisconsin cities. In addition, Close and Sorano point out that many Langlade County residents live outside the Antigo area in smaller, rural communities with severe childcare shortages.

“This is a great step forward, but there is a lot of work to do,” said Isker. “Part of it is providing care on an alternate schedule. It’s a struggle.”

Sorano focused on growing smaller first.

Antigo Child Care has announced a summer program for school-aged children, and has enrolled about 40 children so far. Sorano is also in discussions with the Antigo Housing Authority about additional building renovations that could enable it to add four more slots for infants and four more slots for young children.

“Everyone who gets together will blossom and blossom into other things,” Sorano said. “When we have support and financial stability, I feel comfortable opening up a school-age summer program or expanding to meet a need. Without the support of the community, there is no way I feel someone would want to do something else.”

This story is part of NEW (Northeastern Wisconsin) News Lab’s fourth series, “Families Matter,” covering issues important to families in the area. The Lab is a Northeast Wisconsin local news collaboration made up of six news organizations: Green Bay Press-Gazette, Appleton Post-Crescent, FoxValley365, The Press Times, Wisconsin Public Radio, and Wisconsin Watch. The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Journalism Department is an educational partner. Microsoft is providing financial support to the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation and the Fox Valley Community Foundation to fund the initiative. The lab’s mission is to “collaborate to identify and close information gaps to help residents explore ways to improve their communities and lives – and to strengthen democracy.”Contact Jeff Bollier at (920) 431-8387 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @tweet.

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