This year’s sold-out Kids First Conference offered professional development for rural child care providers close to home, but it was also a chance to show them some love.
“What an incredible conference this year. We were able to support about 250 early educators with great sessions, networking activities, special appreciation and a fun new location Jackpot Junction,” said Sue Thomes, Child Care Aware Coordinator for United Community Action Partnership, which helped host the event. “I’m thankful for the support of our sponsors, especially Southwest Initiative Foundation, and for all of our early childhood educators!”
SWIF’s sponsorship of the Kids First Conference is part of our broader work to support child care. We are also helping plan and invest in local child care projects, and ensuring leaders and communities are equipped and supported to ensure child care related work is right-sized for local needs. Scott Marquardt attended the conference on behalf of SWIF.
“There has never been a more urgent time to invest in our region’s child care professionals. Investing in professional development and wellbeing for our child care professionals is a critical priority for SWIF. We are grateful for the impact that these amazing educators and leaders are having on our children, their families, and the employers throughout our region.”Scott Marquardt
There was a full schedule for the Friday and Saturday conference in March. Staff from Peacemaker Resources led much of the learning on Friday. This nonprofit works with youth and adults across Minnesota to foster communication, compassion and connection, leading to respectful relationships and healthier individuals, families and communities.
“We celebrated this amazing group of educators and emphasized the need for self-care, understanding stress and the importance of closing the stress cycle, recognizing how experiences impact who we are and how we interact with the world around us, and how to best support the children and families we serve,” said Linsey McMurrin, Executive Director of Peacemaker Resources. “It was an amazing day full of laughter, deep reflection and learning and un-learning.”
Funding from SWIF kept Kids First Conference registration fees affordable — $40 for 14 hours of training, meals, and snacks — and covered the cost of an overnight hotel stay for child care providers attending from southwest Minnesota. The goal was to allow attendees to socialize with their peers in the evening, build relationships with their center staffing teams or simply have a night to recharge away from the place where they give so much to our region’s families.
Michelle Vavricka took advantage of the opportunity with a group of providers from the Granite Falls area.
“The hotel room made a huge difference for us since we had to commute to and from. My husband and I are co-licensed together, so to pay for two of us can be a lot, but the registration fee was reasonable. To have a free room on top of that really helped. We got to have a really good time with our friends and didn’t have to worry about driving in the dark,” said Michelle, who operates a child care in Granite Falls with her husband, Mark Weberg.
In the 16 years she’s been in licensed child care, Michelle has attended the Kids First Conference many times. She enjoys being able to go to training with other providers she knows and learn from presentations like Peacemaker Resources that explore what’s behind kids’ behavior and ways to address it.
Originally from Granite Falls, Michelle has always taken care of kids. It’s her calling. At age 11 she was babysitting. Then she nannied when she relocated to California. After Michelle moved home to Granite Falls and had a daughter, she started her family-based child care with Mark. At one point, they juggled the schedules of 26 kids in shifts to fill the need for care.
COVID-19 cut their numbers in half, and now they regularly have six kids in their care. With both Michelle and Mark turning 50, she says they’ll keep it at that smaller number.
“Some ladies — God love ‘em — they can have all that energy and noise around them. But having 12 or 14 kids is too much for us now. We’re trying to slow down,” Michelle said, adding that they don’t have any infants enrolled and are “done with diapers.”
While the business side of child care has always been challenging, it’s especially hard with a small group. Michelle feels like she’s being forced out of the industry because she can’t keep up with as many kids — but she can’t make the numbers work without them.
“We have nine jobs between the three of us, with our daughter, just to make it all work out. It has a lot to do with health insurance,” said Michelle, who lives with an autoimmune disorder. “Wouldn’t it be great if I could stay in business and just have six kids and help out with the child care situation? You have no choice but to age out of the process. I think there’s a lot of people who would continue doing it if they could find a way to financially make it with fewer kids.”
So what keeps her going? The kids are a big part, of course.
“I can find them very, very funny. And the discovering of things. We’ve always had a lot of fun with the kids. They’ve added a lot of adventure to our lives,” she said.
Michelle also appreciates support from SWIF for child care in the region.
“I like the fact that they come and they listen. Scott seems to always be there at (community child care) meetings. I feel like he actually cares and pays attention to what we’re saying. That’s nice to have someone on your side, in your corner paying attention,” Michelle said.