The Washington State Department of Commerce in partnership with the Department of Children Youth and Families recently awarded $17.2 million in grants to support learning facilities in the state — $225,000 of which is going to the Bethel Kids Learning Center in Chehalis to assist with the building of an 3,500 square foot addition next to the center which will house three new preschool classrooms, a children bathroom, employee bathroom, laundry room, and a small office space.
“Too many working parents in Washington are either paying more than they can afford or struggling to find quality child care and preschool in their community,” said Lisa Brown, Director of the Washington State Department of Commerce, in a press release. “The first years of life are critical to a child’s long-term development. These grants are a crucial step toward achieving a child care system that works better for all Washington families.”
DeeDee Judd, director of the Bethel Kids Learning Center, said that they are hoping to have construction complete by June and then have 90 days to get the space licensed for children by the fire marshal and the licensers. Right now the preschool space is on track to be ready for preschoolers by fall.
The Bethel Kids Learning Center, open from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., is a part of Bethel Church in Chehalis and has been accepting children birth to 12 years old since October of 2017. The center is licensed for a max capacity of 122 kids and currently has 350 kids on the waiting list— 175 of which are preschool age.
“It’s been making a huge difference in the community and I can’t wait to see how much more we can do once we add all those rooms,” said Judd.
The addition is a mobile unit that is parked just outside the back entrance of the building and will eventually be connected with an awning and will allow parents easy access from the parking lot when dropping off or picking up their children. The three preschool classrooms will hold 20 kids per room allowing for many more preschool-aged kids to get off the waiting list when the addition is complete and licensed.
“The need is just so great. There just aren’t that many options for preschool around here. I always recommend getting on the list when women are pregnant,” said Judd.
The total budget for the project was set at $300,000 so the grant covers 75 percent of the costs. Bethel Church submitted a letter of commitment to the Washington State Department of Commerce saying they will cover the other 25 percent of the project costs, Judd said.
“Everything we read said ‘this is so competitive’. I think there were over 90 places that were denied so the fact that we were even chosen is unreal and we didn’t expect it but we were already going with this and we knew it would happen either way but now that we were chosen it’s a lot less of a burden,” Judd said.
The grants support the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) contractors and Working Connections Child Care (WCCC) subsidy providers to expand, remodel, purchase or construct early learning facilities or classrooms. A requirement to qualify for the grant was that the early learning facility has to be involved with the Early Achievers, Washington’s Quality Rating Improvement System (QRIS) for child care facilities.
The learning center employs about 15 employees and must keep the children to employee ratio at 10 to 1. They will be hiring seven more people when the new preschool rooms are complete. The Bethel Kids Learning Center offers three, four or five days a week care for children, which can be up to 10 hours a day.
“We work around the parent’s work schedule. Our mission here is to really nurture our kids, build them up, guide them and teach them about Jesus which is the most amazing part of our job,” Judd said.
Judd and her sister Trisha Armitage got involved with the Bethel Kids Learning Center about four months after it was founded and said that there was an outpouring of support from the church to get the program started. Judd said the church recognized the need for childcare and preschool within the community and worked to build a program to help meet the need.
“I think the one thing that sets us apart is just the excitement for learning that we have for our kids. We really focus on building them a foundation before they go off to school — showing empathy for others, being kind, celebrating all of the differences that we have from one another. Just getting that foundation set before they go to school is huge because they are with us so many hours in a day and they get to build relationships with other kids,” Judd said.
Most of these kids transition from room to room as they get older and make friends with kids that they will eventually go to school with. Judd said it eases parents’ minds to know that when they take their kid to kindergarten for the first time that they already have a friend.
“We feel like we really try to support our families wherever they’re at. We cry with them, we laugh with them. We really want to support all of the families in the community because parenting is hard and we wish we could take everyone on our list,” Judd said.