“IFF’s Learning Spaces program invests in the facilities of community-based providers, home-based or smaller centers,” says Ashanti Bryant, IFF director of early childhood services. “The bulk of the providers in southeast Grand Rapids, most of them are women of color. There is an intentional effort in our Learning Spaces work to support and build the capacity and walk alongside these women of color to strengthen their programs and to support them as business owners.”
A 2018 IFF study determined that 12,000 children in Grand Rapids needed early care and education services, but only half were able to access it. The new center will provide spots for 104 infants, toddlers and preschoolers. In addition to care and education, the center will serve as a hub for health services and provide resources for parents.
“Our partner [ELNC], who will be operating this new center, believes in what is called a two-generation approach,” Bryant says. “The educational support and care is not just for the child but for the parents and whoever the adults are who are attached to that child — grandparents, caregivers. There will be support services, health services and coaching. All those kinds of things will be embedded in the program to serve children and their families.”
Because the US is not one of the 41 countries offering paid parental leave (many countries take care of new parents for up to a year), finding childcare from infancy has become a tremendous stressor for many, especially since it often takes two full-time incomes just to make ends meet. In Grand Rapids, many such parents reside in southeast neighborhoods.
“We’ve been engaging with the local community now for years. The need for childcare has been articulated by people living in southeast Grand Rapids,” Bryant says. “We are not just relying on random data. We are community-informed, very intentional, very grassroots and responding to the needs expressed by parents and families on the southeast side.”
The construction of the facility’s eight classrooms will support quality programming with natural light, sound mitigation, intentional color schemes, high air quality and nonhazardous construction materials and furnishings.
“Our work ensures that lower- to moderate-income communities have quality facilities, as well. We’ve learned, obviously, through COVID, the importance of the facility environment for us as human beings,” Bryant says. “Last but not least, the center will also include outdoor spaces in the natural environment. Children in low-income communities sometimes don’t have access to safe play spaces and green spaces, the ability to look up at the sky and dream of their future.”
The new childcare center will also create jobs when 20 to 25 staff members are hired. Typically, childcare workers are among the lowest paid workers in the US economy. A report released in February 2021 found only 10 states where childcare workers without children earn enough to cover their basic needs. Michigan is not on the list. No states pay these workers who are supporting children a living wage. The living wage for Kent County residents has been calculated at $14.11 an hour for a single adult with no children and $27.24 for two adults, both working, with three children.
“Our staff members will be paid as close to a ‘livable’ wage as we can get,” Bryant says. “These caregivers and teachers are there for one of the most important stages of children’s development, the first five years. Our aim is to pay a livable wage for all staff and teachers.”