Despite bright spots, across the Adirondack region, parents face shortage of available daycare providers
Story by Sara Foss, photos by Eric Teed
When Chelsea Nye’s 15-month-old daughter was born, her mother-in-law came to the Adirondacks to help.
She stayed for seven months, watching the baby while Nye and her husband worked. When a new childcare facility opened in Keene, their daughter went to daycare, and the mother-in-law returned to the Midwest.
For Nye and other Adirondack families, Little Peaks has been a godsend. Founded in 1993, Little Peaks ran a well-regarded, half-day preschool out of the Keene Community Center for three decades. In 2022, the non-profit organization broke ground on a new, expanded facility, providing full-time childcare at a time when daycare openings are increasingly scarce. Serving children between 5 months and 5 years old, Little Peaks has two infant/toddler rooms and a preschool room, with 33 children enrolled and another 15 on the waitlist.
“I’m not sure what we would have done if Little Peaks hadn’t opened,” said Nye, 30, an account manager at Burnham Benefit Advisors, while picking her daughter up from daycare shortly before Thanksgiving. “We were on every wait-list. No one had a spot.”
For a region eager to attract young families to bolster its shrinking and aging population, the diminished supply of childcare is a barrier to growth, right up there with the shortage of affordable housing. The issue has as much to do with economic development as family well-being, spurring some communities to develop innovative solutions to the problem.
Little Peaks drew upon the wealth and generosity of the community to build a new $1.4 million facility, which opened its doors in September. The builder, Scott McClelland, volunteered most of his services, and a large gift from the late philanthropist Annette Merle-Smith helped establish a $525,000 endowment that subsidizes tuition for families that need assistance but do not qualify for county aid.
Little Peaks now serves Keene families and others from miles away, including Moriah, Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Elizabethtown. “All those surrounding communities are getting wind that we’re here,” said Laura Birofka, director of Little Peaks. “People are willing to travel for it.”
Warm and welcoming, with attractive wooden toys and furniture and a fenced-in play area near a burbling stream. Little Peaks promotes learning through play and exploration, with an emphasis on the outdoors. Large windows provide ample natural light, even in the waning hours of the day.
“It was built from scratch and dreams,” said Anita Sayers, a preschool teacher at Little Peaks. “When the architect asked, ‘What matters?’ we said, ‘Light and wood.’”
State funding help fuel new programs to address the childcare shortage in the Adirondacks
A regionwide childcare shortage
Finding childcare in the Adirondacks has never been easy. The pandemic placed more strain on an already creaky system.
The Adirondack Foundation’s Kate Ryan, director of the Adirondack Birth to Three Alliance, described childcare needs in “crisis” for years. “It was magnified during the pandemic in that many of the early childhood educating professionals who had been in the business for many, many years recognized it as a good time to retire, she said.”
Staffing shortages also became more acute. Centers that did reopen were sometimes forced to keep classrooms closed because they couldn’t find enough workers.
Jamie Basiliere, executive director of the Child Care Coordinating Council of the North Country, covering Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties, said it saddened her to see Head Start programs have to shutter. “They’ve got kids to enroll, but they cannot find staff,” she said.
Low pay is an industry problem, fueling turnover. Tuition revenue alone isn’t enough to support living wages for workers, but because childcare is expensive—infant care at a center typically runs over $12,000 a year—providers are mindful that steep tuition hikes can drive away families unable or unwilling to absorb the added cost.
In October, the income eligibility for parents receiving childcare assistance rose from $83,250 for a family of four to $99,250 for a family of four, which the state estimates will help over 100,000 additional families.
“That’s huge,” said Lynn Sickles, executive director at the Southern Adirondack Child Care Network, which helps parents in Warren, Washington and Hamilton counties. “However, if there are no childcare slots, it doesn’t help a family. They can afford to pay for it but can’t find it.”
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Rural communities hit hard
Because most communities lack a critical mass of children, larger childcare centers are hard to sustain in the rural Adirondacks. As a result, smaller, in-home daycares are a more critical part of the childcare landscape, serving families who might not have access to those larger centers. But few are willing to take on the challenge of running a daycare out of their home. The start-up costs, relentless nature of the job and wear and tear to one’s house can be prohibitive, even for those who find that kind of work appealing.
A 2021 report from the Adirondack Birth to Three Alliance concluded the region’s childcare infrastructure is “only sufficient” to serve “at most” 43% of the 11,000 children between the ages of birth to 5 years old in Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton and Warren counties, and the Mohawk land of Akwesasne.
“But that does not tell the whole story because some communities have far more capacity than others,” states the report. “More population-dense communities such as Plattsburgh, Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, and Malone have many more slots per child than more rural, less densely populated areas.” It describes about 80% of the census tracts across the region as childcare “deserts”—places with three or more children per available childcare slot.
For parents, it all adds up to a desperate hunt for childcare, especially for infants and toddlers.
“There’s always been a need for childcare, but it was nothing like this,” Sickles said. Before the pandemic, “we would hear more, different versions of why parents might not have found childcare,” she said. “The hours weren’t right, or they didn’t like the location, or the program wasn’t right. But now, there’s just no availability.”
A parent’s dilemma: Work or stay home?
Laura Wilt knows firsthand. She lives in Lake Pleasant in Hamilton County, which has just one in-home childcare provider, though two more are expected to open soon.
Before becoming a stay-at-home mom, Wilt was a full-time prevention worker at Berkshire Farm. She and her husband used a family daycare about 15 miles away, but it was unreliable. Family daycare providers are limited to two children under 2, and because Wilt’s daughter was the last child to arrive at the daycare in that age group, “we were on a day-to-day basis if we could use the service or not. … If (the provider) had two children coming on any given day who had ‘seniority’ over us, we were not given a spot for that day. It became challenging for us to live this way.”
In 2020, Wilt and her husband decided she would quit her job and substitute teach or waitress whenever possible. Then the pandemic hit, shutting down schools and restaurants. Wilt stayed home for two-and-a-half years, until her mom began watching the kids —a son was born in 2021—on occasion. On those days, Wilt substitute teaches.
Her hope, Wilt said, is that she can return to work when both her children are in school.
Being a stay-at-home-mother has been “isolating and lonesome,” she said. “That has been the most challenging part about giving up working.”
Not every family wants or needs to enroll their kids in formal childcare programs, but Basiliere estimates that more than half of children do need childcare so that their parents can work.
In Essex, Clinton and Franklin counties, there is only one slot for every five kids between newborn and 12 years old (the age where licensed childcare stops). The dearth of slots has contributed to a flourishing underground market.
Many unlicensed providers advertise on social media and present themselves as legitimate, Basiliere said. Some get busted and leave the business. Some get licensed.
“I’m not saying all licensed childcare is high quality or that all unlicensed childcare is poor quality,” Basiliere said. “But at least there are health and safety requirements and background checks done on the programs that are licensed.”
In 2023, the Southern Adirondack Child Care Network released a childcare needs assessment for Warren and Washington counties. The study found that between 2019 and 2022, the number of childcare facilities in Warren County fell 40%, from 50 to 30.
In Washington County, the number of facilities fell 37%, from 54 to 34.
Holding back growth
Dillon Prime moved to the Adirondacks from New York City with his family during the pandemic. His 7-month-old son is in the infant/toddler room at Little Peaks; his two older children attend school. In 2021, Prime and his wife purchased the Trail’s End inn, a bed and breakfast in Keene Valley, with two other couples. The three families manage the Inn and live there as a community.
“We’ve tried to get other couples to move up, but their question is always: ‘What’s the childcare like?’” said Prime, 38, an education consultant who works remotely. The uncertainty around the issue discourages people. “One of the biggest fears is that there won’t be childcare, and someone will have to quit their job,” he said.
This article appeared in the current issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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