From shortages in staffing and resources, to rising demand, to ever-changing protocols and best practices, Vermont’s early care & learning programs have faced steep challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
So it’s hard to imagine what could make things more challenging for Vermont’s dedicated child care providers, but here’s another: toys. Toys – educational and enrichment play equipment, and plush stuffed animals – at Vermont’s early care & learning programs have had to be discarded, due to possible COVID-19 contamination.
At Highgate’s Homestead Daycare, owner/director Hallie Johnson assesses the impact on Franklin County’s child care businesses and the families that depend on them. “A lot of private child care programs in our area have closed permanently because of COVID-19,” she says with a sigh. “We’re fortunate, in that all our families were deemed essential workers, so we worked straight through and haven’t shut down,” she says.
Since COVID-19’s arrival in early 2020, Vermont’s early care & learning providers have had to adapt and pivot. Regulations and operating protocols change regularly and often, disrupting their program, impacting attendance (no fevers, coughs, rashes or other symptoms for up to 72 hours) and requiring regular, rigorous cleaning and disinfecting. Toys and play equipment made of fabric or other soft, germ-carrying materials, would need to be replaced with wooden and hard-surfaced equipment that could be thoroughly and easily disinfected.
While Hallie fully understands the need to dispose of the possibly-contaminated toys, she also notes the heavy price. “Cleaning materials and replacements for play equipment have been expensive,” she says. But the cost to the kids, missing their dollhouses and outdoor play structures, was even more costly, she adds.
Hallie devised a plan: “First I asked the children for a list of what they wanted for replacements,” she says. Next, she followed up with input from parents. The list of requests (not surprisingly!) aligned perfectly with Homestead’s nature-based curriculum. “They asked for outdoor play structures, tents, raised beds for growing vegetables that we could eat, balance beams and rock gardens,” Hallie says. “And a dollhouse.”
Hallie’s husband was ready to begin building wooden toys and outdoor play structures, but the couple soon discovered another hurdle. “We were ready to purchase the lumber to build, but the cost of lumber and other materials has skyrocketed since COVID-19 hit,” she says. That’s when she called the Loan Fund.
“VCLF was absolutely wonderful,” she says. “They made the whole loan process painless and really easy!”
Hallie’s VCLF loan covered costs of lumber and other materials. The Homestead children are now excitedly keeping watch as their new play spaces take shape.
“For over 30 years, VCLF has stood by Vermont’s early care & learning programs, providing financing and business support, lending over $10.7 million to Vermont programs that have created and preserved more than 4,700 child care slots to date,” says VCLF Executive Director Will Belongia. “VCLF is committed to providing this critical support through the pandemic and beyond.”
Hallie is quick to point up VCLF’s unique, mission-driven work. “Banks don’t really support child care loans,” she says, “So I wouldn’t have been able to do all of this without the Loan Fund. I’m so grateful for myself and the kids, for all VCLF has made possible.” facebook.com/Homestead-Daycare-1633715253572546
Financing was also provided to:
Creative Spirit Children’s Center, West Fairlee
Creative Spirit Children’s Center first borrowed from VCLF in 2005, when owner/director Sheila Bedi used financing to expand help grow her young program. In 2021, she sold the program to longtime staff member Holly Sebring; VCLF financed the purchase. The loan preserves high-quality care for 25 children and their families, and preserves four full-time and four part-time jobs. facebook.com/Creative-Spirit-Childrens-Center-336748406366
East Calais Community Trust, East Calais
The nonprofit East Calais Community Trust (ECCT) was established in 2019 to purchase and restore the East Calais General Store, a longstanding cornerstone local business, affordable housing site and historic downtown property. After raising funds to acquire the property, ECCT used VCLF financing for pre-development costs including permitting and architectural planning. The fully renovated store will reopen in 2022. The loan will create four jobs and three affordable homes. eastcalaiscommunitytrust.org
Kingdom Corn Maze, Sutton
Kingdom Corn Maze is a start-up enterprise launched by the Simpson family, owners of the adjacent Simpson Farm dairy. The new venture will include two corn mazes, a farm market, farm tours, education area and more, expanding on the agricultural tourism attractions in the area. VCLF financing will help cover costs of equipment, improvements to the corn maze property and the farm, while creating six full-time and two part-time jobs. kingdomcornmaze.com
Mamava, a VCLF borrower since 2017, designs freestanding lactation suites – private, stand-alone, one-room pods that provide space for mothers to nurse or use a breast pump in private. Their pods are now present in stadiums, airports, universities, government and military facilities, private businesses and more, across the country. In 2021, Mamava had the opportunity to purchase the Springfield, Vermont-based business that manufactures their pods, allowing for greater control of product customization. Mamava used VCLF financing to expand their line of credit and support this purchase, helping preserve 31 jobs and creating 14 new jobs. mamava.com
NEK Grains, Waterford
Owners Shawn and Sarah Gingue run NEK Grains, producing wheat, barley and other grains for wholesale custom order and milled flour products, from their family’s multi-generational farm. (Shawn and Sarah are the third generation of Gingues to build upon the family’s farming legacy!) They also offer custom seeding of grasses, grains, and cover crops, and sell beef and baked goods. When, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, sales via their website jumped, they planned an expansion of their grain growing operations, necessitating new grain storage silos and grain cleaning equipment. VCLF financing helped cover costs, preserving two jobs. ginguefamilyfarm.com/nekgrains
NU Chocolat, Burlington
NU Chocolat, artisanal chocolatiers using locally and ethically-sourced ingredients, originally borrowed from VCLF in 2018 to open their Burlington retail shop. Since then, rising sales, even through the pandemic, have brought owners Kevin and Laura Toohey to plan for further growth. The next phase of their expansion involves the purchase of Selmi Depositor machines, which will allow for increased production and free up time for the Tooheys to focus on other aspects of the business. VCLF financing will help cover cost of the machines and additional inventory for their busy holiday season. The loan preserves six jobs. nuchocolat.com
Vermont First Class Ride, South Burlington
After driving for Uber for four-plus years in Vermont, Adolphe Lumumba recognized a gap in Vermont’s transportation offerings: tourists and other travelers requesting luxury van and limo options to take them to and from conferences, weddings, resorts and more. Adolphe approached VCLF for financing to purchase a sprinter van that could accommodate large parties in luxury style. The loan preserves one fulltime job with future jobs to come as his fleet grows. vtfirstclassride.com