As Anna Wardwell prepares to open her new home childcare business in Hampden, the animal residents keep her busy.
Surrounded by chickens and other poultry roaming the hilly six-acre property, Wardwell stops to hand out red apples to three little pigs and check on a pair of goats that happen to be sisters. All of them will star in Little Learners Homestead LLC, which promises farm childcare for up to a dozen toddlers ages three to six.
The $ 275 weekly tuition includes three meals a day and activities from milking goats to gardening; Similar to Waldorf schools, the Little Learners should encourage creativity and the appreciation of nature.
“I can’t wait to get started and meet the kids,” says Wardwell, who has a degree in environmental science from Colby College. For her first entrepreneurial venture, she will draw on her experience as a horticulturist at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, special education teacher, farmer and biologist.
While the Little Learners’ focus is on nature, Wardwell is also putting the finishing touches on a colorful indoor play area, which is already equipped with reading material and little boots for little feet.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking making sure it all fits together, but you will find out over time,” said Wardwell, a recent incubator graduate in 2020 from Coastal Enterprises Inc., based in Brunswick, known as Child Care Business Lab, was founded.
When Wardwell opens Little Learners later this month, she’ll join a growing group of entrepreneurs in childcare. Services vary from basic day care to educational and enrichment programs as Wardwell envisions; She is one of 18 entrepreneurs in Maine’s rural Rim Counties who have completed or are participating in the Business Lab, a five-year program aimed at bringing new childcare businesses to underserved areas.
Four have been licensed so far, and another seven are to be licensed in September. Another 13 are enrolled in a Lewiston cohort, with six emerging businesses including a cooperative and a partnership.
While the CEI program isn’t the only way to get a business off the ground, it does bring newcomers into a sector that is prone to business cycles, human and financial challenges, and where waiting lists have long been the norm. The situation worsened during the pandemic, especially at the beginning when parents struggling financially withdrew their children from programs and facilities. According to the Institute for Labor Economics IZA, this contributed to the loss of 360,000 childcare places nationwide or a third of the industry at the beginning of 2020.
Despite the challenges, the start-up dynamic in the Maine childcare sector remains strong, one micro-business or one nonprofit at a time.
“We are driven by the childcare startup activities here in Maine,” said Cynthia Murphy, CEI senior program director for Workforce Solutions. Now is the “time to act,” she says, noting that by the end of this month new government grants of $ 2,000 are available to start home care – and for those who tend to get free coaching through the CEI incubator. All of these factors “combine to create a supportive driveway”.
In Maine, 70 new childcare providers have been licensed nationwide so far this year, according to data compiled by the state health department for Mainebiz (see graphic); compared to 155 licenses issued in 2019 and 106 in 2020.
While populous counties such as Cumberland and York are among the highest new childcare providers approved in 2021, rural counties such as Knox, Lincoln and Piscataquis are far behind with a new licensed provider each, even though the need is greatest there.
This is typical of a nationwide crisis that saw 700,000 parents of children under the age of 5 retire in 2020, including those who quit their jobs due to childcare issues, according to a January report by the Center for American Progress, a Washington, DC-based think tank.
“Hundreds of thousands of working parents will need reliable and affordable childcare before they can even look for a job after the pandemic,” concluded the report’s author.
While government policies and support help a little, private childcare facilities – many of which are small, home-based operations – remain largely undercapitalized and often cannot afford to cut their fees or pay wages above the median US hourly rate of US 11.42 Dollar increase. While the funding crisis has forced many providers to give up, others are beginning to spring up in their place as Mainers start new ventures aimed at filling various niches.
Newcomers from Washington County
New childcare providers in Maine include two in Washington County whose founders participated in CEI’s Business Lab to help start five companies in its first year. The program, which includes business plans, access to capital and licenses, is funded by a federal grant for five years.
Pembroke-based Tabitha Bennett joined the Business Lab’s first cohort last February after she and her husband decided to open a daycare in a house they bought in 2019.
They came up with the idea when their pregnant daughter could not find a provider for her future grandchild.
Since returning to Maine in 2005, she considered getting back into childcare for many years, but the timing was never right until Bennett contacted CEI in late 2019 and learned about the Business Lab. After Bennett went through the program that included coaching on a business plan and licensing requirements, Bennett opened Little Bird Child Care in August 2020, which was slightly delayed due to the pandemic. She is licensed to look after a dozen children aged six weeks to 12 years and currently has nine charges, including grandson Lucas.
Despite tiring 12-hour days, she finds the work fulfilling and says: “The 12 month old that I have came to me when I was eight weeks old and it is amazing to watch the development, to see her personalities grow – for me that is the worthwhile piece. “
Her advice to others who are thinking about starting childcare: “In addition to being close to the children, you really have to have good organizational skills and there is also a lot of paperwork.”
About 60 miles down the coast, in Milbridge, Juana Rodriguez-Vazquez is another graduate of the Business Lab who started a bilingual childcare program in January at Mano en Mano, a nonprofit that supports farm workers and Latinx communities by helping the Access to employment, housing and other services.
Rodriguez-Vazquez would like to complement these services with Rayitos de Sol, Spanish for “little rays of sunshine”, with three full-time employees in the offices of the non-profit organization, who look after a dozen children from toddlers to preschoolers in a conference room; Currently capacity is at full capacity, the goal is to limit the number to 10 based on space. Eventually, there are plans to move to a larger location nearby so that the program can accommodate more teenagers, including toddlers.
“I’m trying to raise funds – and I think it will take a while,” says Rodriguez-Vazquez, who immigrated to Maine from Mexico with her parents more than two decades ago to pick blueberries. Now parents herself, she is the senior teacher at Rayitos de Sol while serving as interim manager of Mano en Mano.
She is happy with the non-profit childcare model, which gives her more leeway to pay her employees better than a private company. As a non-profit organization, there are more options for this. “
About the name Rayitos de Sol, she says: “I have thought about things that have inspiration and vigilance, like a sun, and thought about how children have special rays of the sun and shine out into the world.”
Photo / Courtesy of Mano En Mano
In Milbridge, Juana Rodriguez-Vazquez reads to the little ones who are participating in a bilingual childcare program she started at Mano en Mano, a non-profit that supports farm workers and Latinx communities.
Expansion is also planned for nonprofit childcare providers, including the Portland Children’s Center, which is adding a second childcare location in a rented 3,180 square foot building on Forest Avenue; and the Boys & Girls Club of Kennebec Valley, which is building a larger facility in Gardiner to expand its childcare facilities.
Both are continuing with their plans despite fundraising and other hurdles during the pandemic.
Photo / Courtesy of the children’s center
The Portland Children’s Center offers programs from 18 months of age through pre-kindergarten.
“We were lucky enough to get one of the PPPs [Paycheck Protection Program] Loans, so we’re holding on and have some very dedicated parents, ”says Kimberley Hoyt, director of the children’s center. “Families have given us incredible support.”
Ingrid Sanchfield, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Kennebec Valley, shares this view, saying that people value childcare more than they did before COVID.
“People are now realizing that without childcare and when parents have to quit their job because they don’t have childcare, our entire economic environment changes,” she says.
Back in the world of small business, Iran-born Sholeh Misaghian of Happy Garden Family Childcare in Portland plans to use a $ 6,500 loan from international nonprofit Kiva to replace a fence and make repairs to her home, to create more space and a better experience. The center, which she opened in 2012, is approved for up to 12 children and costs $ 60 per day.
She opened the store after a foot injury forced her to quit her job at Whole Foods, and she enjoys cooking daily meals for the little ones in her care: “I love fruits, vegetables, and grains so my fridge is full and she has to don’t bring anything, ”she says.
But when she thinks back on starting her business, she says it took her nine months to get her first clients, possibly because she’s an immigrant and needed to win people’s trust.
“I understand that parents are careful,” she says, “but when children come here, I know what they need.”
Among the failed start-up attempts, Willem Sandberg and Amanda Carbonneau faced various challenges in their attempt to start a company called Lief (Dutch for “dear” or “lovable”) that was briefly in the Techstars Accelerator at the Roux Institute of Northeastern University in Portland .
After testing the concept of using technology to bring families with nannies together, the duo abandoned the company after failing to obtain the required business license.
Sandberg still leaves the door open to reconsider the idea at some point while he prepares to start a new career chapter … Maybe one day. “