- Associated Press - Sunday, October 23, 2016

NORFOLK, Neb. (AP) - Shayla Wheeler learned to juggle her schedule when she returned to work after maternity leave.

That became a necessary skill to keep up with the realities of life with an infant.

“We really struggled to find daycare when Kinley was first born,” Wheeler said. “My family had to step up and come watch her while we worked because we couldn’t find anything.”

For the first five months of her daughter’s life, Wheeler relied on four different people to care for her baby each week.

The couple eventually found a daycare provider in Battle Creek. Although it required the Wheelers to drive out of town twice each day, the couple - who have since moved to Battle Creek - were happy to find someone.

“It was hard on us,” Wheeler said. “It was very, very stressful in the beginning.”

The Wheelers’ struggle is not unique. It’s a challenge faced by many parents of small children in the Norfolk area, where a shortage of daycare providers has many beginning the search for child care as soon as they decide to have a baby.

“There are not enough spaces for infants up to 18 months and 2-year-olds,” said Leonor Fuhrer, coordinator for the Norfolk Family Coalition, which is seeking to help address the issue.

The Norfolk Daily News (https://bit.ly/2ek0Lln ) reports that according to data gathered by Schmeeckle Research in the August 2013 Norfolk/Madison County Early Childhood Community Assessment, the population of children under 5 years old grew by 14.6 percent from 2000 to 2011, while the total population grew by only 1.8 percent over the same time period.

Those figures equate to about 1,963 children under the age of 5 years old in Norfolk. The numbers are expected to grow to 2,100 by 2025.

Currently, there are 13 licensed child care centers and 53 licensed in-home daycares in Norfolk, creating 1,538 licensed slots for children ages six weeks to 12 years old.

“That’s what they’re licensed for, not what they’ll take,” said the Rev. Dustin Petz, pastor at First United Methodist Church, which operates the Wesley Center Childcare Center in Norfolk. “They’re often licensed for a larger number than they want to serve.”

Those figures don’t take into account the unlicensed daycare alternatives available, but there is no reliable way of assessing the number.

Courtney Kaiser, a mother of three who moved to Norfolk from Clearwater in hopes of finding daycare, left her job when her youngest son was born because she couldn’t find adequate care. Her son is now 8 months old, and she’s still searching for someone who can accommodate her needs.

“It is a very tiring process, calling everyone and getting turned down,” said Kaiser, whose search is complicated because she requires a provider who will agreed to be paid by the state since Kaiser is receiving government assistance.

“In Norfolk, the places that have (an) opening don’t accept state pay, and the ones that accept state pay have no opening,” she said.

Chad Bryant, director of Helping Hands Childcare, a mission of Christ Lutheran Church in Norfolk, said he fields calls from parents looking for daycare - especially for infants - many times per week.

“It’s very emotional,” Bryant said. “Most families need a dual income just to pay their bills. They’re not doing anything fancy. I have people stopping to talk to me constantly, saying they would have a full-time job if they could only find daycare.”

Bryant said he wants parents to feel secure in their choice for daycare providers, but the current shortage situation has many making choices that aren’t comfortable.

“Some people have to be really creative,” he said. “Sometimes they’re putting themselves in a situation where they’re not totally secure in the care they’re getting. … I want them to feel as secure as possible when they leave this building.”

Sierra Doescher of Norfolk started looking for daycare when she was about six months into her pregnancy. She found someone to care for her son when he was 2 months old.

“I was really scared and wondering what I was going to do,” she said.

Doescher said she called numerous places and received a lot of suggestions, but she received the same answers from nearly every call she made: “We’re full, but we can put your name on a waiting list.”

“I was getting really nervous, wondering if I was going to find daycare in this town,” she said.

Doescher said she was prepared to have her mother - who lives in Beemer and also works - watch her son, which would’ve required daily trips to Pilger to meet her.

“Luckily, I ended up finding a daycare lady who had an opening when I was on maternity leave, but it was a struggle,” Doescher said.

Ashley McManaman, a working mother who commutes between Norfolk and Battle Creek each day, said she would like to see more daycare centers open in the Norfolk area or, perhaps, employers becoming open to the idea of having daycare available on site.

“I lived in Minnesota before I came here,” she said. “A lot of the big (companies) had daycares on site. That seemed to work out pretty well.”

McManaman started looking for a provider as soon as she found out she was pregnant; she didn’t find someone to care for her baby until about a month before her daughter’s birth.

McManaman said she realizes the solution to the daycare shortage won’t be easily found, but it’s a challenge that needs to be addressed sooner than later.

“They tell you when you start trying (to get pregnant) to get your name on a waiting list. It’s sad that you have to plan around having a child based on whether or not you’re going to have daycare,” McManaman said. “Having a child is a happy thing. If you have to work, you shouldn’t have to stress about who’s going to care for your child.”

___

Information from: Norfolk Daily News, https://www.norfolkdailynews.com


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