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Grant to tackle child care issue

The lack of child care availability in Austin has been a problem for several years, but a new program is looking to fix it.

Austin was recently chosen to receive grant money for the Rural Child Care Innovation Program, funded through First Children’s Finance. Austin was chosen along with Roseau, Dawson and Sibley County.

“Our main expectation is to provide quality, affordable child care that is of sufficient capacity,” said Austin Planning and Zoning Administrator Holly Wallace.  “People said [lack of child care] was a barrier to getting them to Austin.”

Sheri Dankert of the Hormel Foundation, Amy Baskin of the Community Learning Center and Diane Baker of United Way filled out the grant application.

“One of the most common concerns I would hear from employees was that there was a lack of child care,” Dankert said. “Amy [Baskin] and Diane [Baker] heard similar statements. Employers noticed employees couldn’t find childcare and were changing their hours to fit a schedule for their kids. We know Austin’s not unique in that, but we want to figure out something to help our community.”

Austin currently has only three certified child care facilities. The waiting lists for these locations are long, as can be attested by Apple Lane Community Child Care Center Executive Director Shannon Hart.

“We can support 198 kids at one given time,” Hart said. “We average around 180 to 200 people per year on our waiting list.”

According to Hart, the number of children Apple Lane can support depends on the number of full and part time contracts they have available.

After Austin was awarded the grant, a core team was formed for the Rural Child Care Innovation Program. Dankert, Baker, Baskin, Wallace and Hart are all part of the team.

“The team’s job is to gather feedback and keep the process moving forward,” Wallace said.

The team met with First Children’s Finance, who provided them with child care statistics. According to the statistics, the average cost of child care in Minnesota is $14,366 per year, significantly higher than the national average of $9,255 per year.

According to Dankert, the team is eager to hear ideas from the public.

“In the coming months, we’ll have community programs to provide education and get people engaged in what is happening,” she said. “That work is in prep for a town hall event where various groups can give input on what we can do. The point is to get the people of Austin to figure out what works. We definitely need community support behind this.”

Dankert also said that if people have an interest, they can connect with a member of the core team.