By Travis Rickford, Executive Director, LiveWell Northwest Kansas
Originally published in the Winter 2021 Issue of Kansas Child Magazine
Today, our rural way of life looks a little different as we adapt to new challenges presented by COVID-19. Our work environments look different, and we think twice about going to the local coffee shop. Similar to the concerns about gathering over the holidays, some of us might look at annual gatherings with more trepidation than we have in the past. As we look at the community supports that have been made available to help families through this global crisis, the ability to access quality child care has been magnified to a “higher than code red” designation.
Before COVID-19, rural communities were in crisis as they explored ways to make child care more available. Businesses built child care facilities for their employees, and daycares looked for ways to expand. Communities created significant fundraising efforts to build child care centers. However, problems related to sustainability continued to exist. Before COVID, almost 80% of all counties in Kansas reported that up to 10 children were waiting for an opening (Child Care Aware of Kansas, 2019 Child Care Supply Demand Report). In some counties, there are as many as 40 children waiting for an opening. Again, this is before COVID-19.
With the onset of COVID-19, the child care gap was exacerbated by closures of day cares. As the leader of a nonprofit, we are not exempt from the problems created by COVID. In addition to our regional initiatives, we operate two group child care facilities. On average, we receive three heartbreaking calls a week asking for care that we cannot provide. As I write this article, one of our facilities is closed because of COVID. All of the preventative measures we took could not hold back a deadly pandemic hell-bent on infiltrating every aspect of our lives. So what do we do? How do we do it? How can child care become something that families never again have to worry about?
My preliminary response, like it tends to be with any adaptive challenge, is to look toward community-centered approaches. As community members, we sometimes have the best ideas, however, we struggle to transform those ideas in action. The magnitude of a problem like child care can paralyze us because it affects every facet of our lives. This is not the first time an adaptive challenge has presented an issue. Like child care, rural communities struggle to provide resources to address mental health. When it was apparent that services were not going to magically appear, the community, particularly the sectors that make up the community (i.e. health, government, education, etc.) had to participate in community conversations and other participatory processes to make progress. I emphasize the word progress, because issues such as mental health and child care do not get resolved right away.
If we can focus on community-led “turning points,” or incremental changes, we might be able to address these highly adaptive challenges and not become overly dismayed in the process. As communities, we need to continue to look at participatory approaches to make progress before our paralysis turns into a vegetative state.