Sarah Leblanc seems never to have encountered a closed door she couldn’t open. Take, for example, the challenges she encountered when starting up Georgia’s Next Generation, her new early care & learning center.
Located in Georgia, Franklin County, where need for quality early care & learning programs is among the highest in the state, Sarah’s plan for Georgia’s Next Generation would open doors for local families and children from the get-go.
“The need is so great here, we’re serving families from a wide geographic area. Georgia, Fairfax, Westboro, Milton, St. Albans,” she says. “And, we have a long waiting list.”
Research proves that early care & learning provides critical advantages in physical, mental, emotional & social development for children. It’s no less essential for Vermont’s working families, who depend on programs like Sarah’s in order to hold steady employment, achieving sustainability and building wealth for their families.
Previously, Sarah had owned Giggles Child Care (another former VCLF borrower!) in South Burlington for twelve years Then she served as an early care licensing supervisor, a public preschool teacher, and as a regional advisor for Community College of Vermont’s Northern Lights professional development system, serving Vermont’s early childhood and afterschool professionals.
With all that experience, transitioning a former pizza restaurant into a top-notch child care facility didn’t faze Sarah at all. She and her husband did much of the renovation work themselves. They built furniture. They landscaped. They completed the project in a month, began waiting for their water permit… and kept waiting.
“Because the water permitting took so long, we were stuck in the initial phase of our building renovations. We couldn’t open. We couldn’t serve the families that needed us, and we’d run out of money,” she recalls.
But ever resourceful, Sarah again knocked on the Vermont Community Loan Fund’s door. She used VCLF financing to bridge expenses including hiring and training staff and completing building upgrades, until the doors could open and income could be generated.
Today, Georgia’s Next Generation’s nine staff members care for children from 55 families across Franklin and Chittenden Counties. The curriculum is an innovative, nature-based model that emphasizes the outdoors and self-discovery.
Among the many aspects of the program she’s proud of, Sarah cites that all staff are salaried rather than paid hourly, which is more typical in the industry. “When staff are paid hourly, they may work some days, then not be brought in on others, so they can’t count on a weekly income. That leads to staffing turnover, which makes the program less stable, and actually robs the program of quality,” she says.
Growing and running a sustainable early care & learning business takes serious planning. That’s why Sarah is a big advocate of utilizing all available resources, like the Loan Fund’s Business Resource Center. “They’re great with budgeting, navigating cash flow, doing projections, and lots of other training,” she says.
Sarah encourages providers to look into any programs, organizations, grants and even apps that may maximize efficiencies and enhance opportunities. Georgia’s Next Generation recently received a competitive Make Way for Kids grant through Let’s Grow Kids, which supports providers in creating additional high-quality child care spaces around Vermont.
She also recommends Smartcare, a program offered through SharedServicesVT.org, which provides a wide range of services to assist early care & learning program directors with billing, payments, attendance and more. “The Shared Services website also lists discounts, provides employee policies and handbooks,” Sarah adds.
Topping Sarah’s resource list is the Vermont Community Loan Fund. “As a new business starting out, a lot of banks typically won’t give you financing,” she says. “If not for the Loan Fund stepping in, we’d be stuck in the initial phase of rehabbing the facility, unable to open our doors or serve our community. We wouldn’t have been able to make payroll.”
There’s a lot to juggle in the early care & learning field, Sarah stresses. “Workdays are long and pay is lower, so finding and keeping staff is challenging. Keeping staff-to-child ratios is critical, so you have to find a way to make that financially feasible. Even figuring out how to cover nine lunch breaks for nine staff members can be challenging,” she notes. “It’s all about utilizing resources.” georgiasnextgeneration.com/
Financing was also provided to:
Civilian Conservation Corps, Williamstown
During the Great Depression, the federally-funded Civilian Conservation Corps provided three million Americans with employment involving public works projects and community service. Today, the organization’s goal is to be a locally-managed Youth Conservation Corps, engaging youth ages 16-24 in service, education, conservation and leadership. Earlier this year, the organization was gifted with a property that CCC will sell as a fundraiser. VCLF financing helps
cover costs of preparing the property for sale, e.g. the transfer tax, property taxes, utilities and more. The loan preserves three jobs and creates three new ones. vermontcivilianconservationcorpshistory.org/
Full Belly Farm, Monkton
In 2018 Stephen and Sarah Park purchased this long-operating berry and vegetable farm, which operates as a ‘pick your own’ destination, as well as selling to wholesalers, restaurants and farmers markets. Loan Fund financing will help with soil building, greenhouse and farm stand improvements and more. The loan preserves 12 jobs. fullbellyfarmvt.com/
Goat Town of Vermont, Randolph
Since 2012, Ayers Brook Goat Dairy has sold their goat milk to Vermont cheesemakers and other dairy operations. Previously, they partnered with former VCLF borrower Vermont Chevon, which specialized in goat meat (chevon). This year, Ayers Brook purchased Vermont Chevon, creating Goat Town of Vermont, and reached out to the Loan Fund to help finance post-purchase operations. Financing helps create two new jobs.
Hollister Hill Farm, Marshfield
Bob and Lee Light, owners of Hollister Hill Farm and Loan Fund borrowers since 2005, came to the Loan Fund for financing to help prepare for the sale of their farm B & B as they transition to retirement. The loan preserves two jobs. hollisterhillfarm.com/
Twisted Roots, Middlesex
Twisted Roots makes all-natural, sparkling herbal teas as a healthy alternative to artificially-sweetened beverages. However, Twisted Roots teas require refrigeration. Recent advances in distribution of refrigerated beverages have greatly increased geographic distribution; eager to capitalize on these opportunities, Twisted Roots came to the Loan Fund for financing for equipment, leasehold improvements and more. The loan preserves one job, and creates one full and one part time position.
Vermont Salumi, Barre
Producers of fresh and dry-cured meat products, Vermont Salumi operated out of the Mad River Food Hub and other locations until their success indicated a need for larger space. Loan Fund financing helped fund renovations to and equipment for their new Barre facility. The Barre Revolving Loan Fund also provided financing on this project. The loan preserves one full- and one part-time job, and creates one new job. vermontsalumi.com/
Walnut Hill Farm, Pawlet
Walnut Hill Farm owners previously borrowed from the Loan Fund for their southern Vermont pork and produce farm. They’ve since relocated to Pawlet, where their focus now is primarily pork production. The transition to their new location coupled with the closing of their meat co-packer led to diminished sales and additional expenses. Financing from VCLF’s SPROUT working lands loan program helped reinvigorate operations. Now they’re working with new co-packers and sales are up, particularly in the New York City metro area where Walnut Hill has gained access to larger scale farmers’ markets. Walnut Hill also sells dried flowers. Financing helps preserve two jobs. walnuthillfarmvt.com/
Since 1987, the Vermont Community Loan Fund has loaned almost $110 million to local businesses, affordable housing developers and community-based organizations that has created or preserved 6,500 jobs; built or rehabilitated 4,100 affordable homes; created or preserved quality care for over 4,100 children and their families; and supported community organizations providing vital services to hundreds of thousands of Vermonters. investinvermont.org