Child care provider Ashlee Mettler, left, and JoAnn Smith, SBDC, look at the room Mettler will use for her business. The area, in the KOOTASCA building, is set up with a nap area behind them, play, craft and kitchen areas.

Ashlee Mettler has wanted to provide child care since she became an aunt.

And thanks to a concerted community effort, she and another provider get the chance to do just that later this month.

Three sites for child care in Koochiching County are nearly ready for kids, with Mettler’s site at the KOOTASCA Community Action Inc. building the first to start, July 20.

JoAnn Smith, of the Small Business Development Center, said the dire need for child care in Koochiching County became clear a few years ago.

And she, and others, decided to do something about it.

As a result, in 2018 the Koochiching Resource Council was formed, and accepted into the Rural Child Care Innovation Program through First Children’s finance.

At that time, a town hall meeting drew people who needed child care and those who wanted to offer it, but could not afford to; a study documented the shortage was real; and a visioning session helped to develop a “pod” model of child care for the area.

“It’s exciting to see that we’ve made progress with this group,” Smith said Monday, showing the site at KOOTASCA, where Mettler is ready for business.

Community collaborative models, or “pod” models take what is normally offered in a family home setting and places it in a commercial setting, Smith said. The idea of one larger center in the county to offer child care just didn’t make sense because of the county’s size, and because it would require multiple, separate rooms, several staff and that would be unaffordable, she added. Also, the license under the pod model use regulations for “family” based child care which are less stringent than “center” based, Smith said.

Smith said the model works well at the KOOTASCA Community Action building at 2232 2nd Ave E, International Falls, where Mettler will provide the service.

And two rooms, with two different providers, are nearly ready for child care businesses at the former Pineview Regional Recovery space at Koochiching Health Services in Littlefork.

Affordability for the providers is key, Smith said.

“Part of the partnership is creating a space that is affordable because when you look at how much they make, they make — if that — minimum wage, with all the responsibilities they would have to do as a business,” Smith said.

Rent at the KOOTASCA building is $125 per month, with $350 at Littlefork; both prices include utilities.

The idea of the operating child care service isn’t new to Mettler, but came to the forefront when she was laid off from United HealthCare in December.

“I was unsure what my next step was, and heard from a few people about this project and so I reached out to Maureen (Rosato, KOOTASCA Community Action director) and we touched base after the holidays and since then, a quick interview and we’re good to go,” she said.

Mettler can offer space to 10 children the first year under her license, and 12 the next year.

She is taking applications for the 10 positions now, and people may contact her through Facebook or call her at 218-240-4303 to apply.

Mettler set up the room with donations from community and family, and material from KOOTASCA’s former child center. She has set it up with play, craft, kitchen and nap areas.

She said she got help in getting her room ready by the very people who sparked her desire to offer child care: Her nieces and nephews made the beds and pillows.

“They were the inspiration behind my wanting to do this,” she said. “I just love kids. Since my first niece came along I just fell in love.”

The KOOTASCA building offers a gymnasium, a gated playground, and connected bathroom.

“I like to be organized and have stuff on my walls,” she said looking around the room, which was inspected by International Falls officials.

At Littlefork, Janessa Smith will be a provider in one room, and space for another provider is being marketed.

“Littlefork needs a lot of care, too, as they bring their kids (to the Falls) because child care isn’t there,” Smith said, adding she’s working with Carrie Claybundy from Koochiching County Health Services.

Jobs and kids

Meanwhile, Smith who works as a SBDC consultant with the Koochiching Economic Development Authority, said the lack of child care in the county has a far reaching effect. The lack of affordable child care in the area means that a lot of jobs go unfilled, and a lot of incomes are affected.

“To create economic development, one of the things we found was that there is a lot of job vacancies, but why are people not applying for them?” she said. “They can’t find a place for their child, that’s affordable, while they go to work. We’re trying to meet that need: Creating jobs for providers and also creating a workforce for that.”

That earlier survey documented that a lot of mothers were forced to be stay-at-home moms because they could not find child care, Smith said. In addition, the survey show that 300 or so slots are needed in the infant and toddler categories of child care.

The child care project was delayed a bit because of the pandemic, but is now back on track, Smith added.

“She’s done a great job,” said Smith of Mettler, as she looked around the room. “She’s done a lot of work.”

Mettler said much of the credit goes to Smith, who took the project and ran with it.

Smith spread the credit around, adding that she got a lot of help from Patricia Welsch, business development specialist from First Children’s Finance with the Rural Child Care Innovation Program; and And Rosato, and Chris Hautala, compliance manager at KOOTASCA Community Action serve as oversight for the Community Collaborative Child Care.

And the project is ongoing. Smith continues to seek additional provider spaces in the community.

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