Early education center keeps a small town working
The Winchester Learning Center’s story is the story of child care in small-town America.
A group of parents and community leaders decides to create quality, affordable child care locally. A church offers space. Walk-a-thons, bake sales and community appeals rally support and money.
No sooner is the center filled with happy, squealing toddlers than a waiting list forms. The board of directors digs in and starts planning for a larger, permanent home to meet the community’s needs. The local United Way adds funding, influence and momentum.
That’s the story that Winchester Learning Center Executive Director Roberta Royce tells in her office in the basement of the Universalists Heritage Foundation. Just a mile or so up Route 10, a roadside sign marks the building soon to become the center’s new home. A second sign, hopscotch blocks mostly filled with colored check marks, shows the fundraising more than halfway to its $600,000 goal.
Winchester, in New Hampshire’s southwest corner, is a working-class town. Per capita income is less than half of the state average. Parents work day and evening shifts at Plumb Pak and other industries. Others take night courses at Keene State College.
The center’s new home will serve close to 60 children, up from its current limit of 36. The move will add four full-time and four part-time jobs and will accommodate two critical needs – for infant and evening care.
Roberta’s plan is to create “family style” second-shift care, with group meals around a table and homework help for the school-aged children.
“The catalyst was the last parent who came to me and said, ‘I have to quit college because I’m working days to support my family, and I can’t take night classes because I have nowhere to leave my child,’ ” says Roberta.
Having served a lot of moms in nursing school, single dads and parents who could earn more on second-shift jobs, Roberta thought, “This is ridiculous. These parents are trying so hard to better themselves, to make a livable wage. … I want to support that.”
The Community Loan Fund’s Child Care program has been involved in the Winchester story almost from the beginning. Before the center opened in 2001, we helped its board form a nonprofit and loaned $30,000 to put the finishing touches on the church basement and hire teachers before tuition payments began rolling in. Last year, a $200,000 loan helped the center buy its new building and serve more families in more ways.
Both loans, says Roberta, were structured in ways that made payments affordable within a limited budget and enabled the center to keep its costs low and to continue offering scholarships ($80,000 last year alone) to families in her community.
“We can afford this mortgage,” she says. “It’s affordable and it allows programs like ours to do these projects in tough times.”
This article was originally published in the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund’s 2011 annual report.