Many parents in Montana are struggling to find affordable, high-quality care for their kids. Several providers in the Bozeman area are trying to fill that gap, including one that says it has a big economic impact on the region.
Less than half of families in Montana have access to childcare, according to the state’s Department of Labor and Industry. There aren’t enough providers, and a lot of parents can’t afford what’s available. The average cost of infant care is over $9,000 per year and almost $8,000 for toddlers. That’s more than in-state tuition at Montana’s public universities.
A mix of non-profit afterschool programs, city services and private nannies are trying to puzzle together enough childcare to go around.
At Meadowlark Elementary School in Bozeman, around 60 kindergarten through fifth graders are decorating turkey masks, making designs with melty beads and playing board games.
Avalon Pequet is in third grade.
Rachel Cramer: What did you do today?
Avalon Pequet: I made a bracelet of rubber bands, and I went outside and played games. I made a beading.
RC: What do you like about this program?
AP: Probably reading and recess.
Avalon is one of the nearly 3,000 kids across Gallatin, Madison, Meagher and Park Counties who participate in kidsLINK, which tries to make sure no kid is left home alone after school and provide a safe and engaging environment. For zero to ten dollars a day, kids learn about things like LEGO robotics, 3-D printers and yoga.
Avalon’s mom, Diana, is at the school to pick up her daughter. She says she works at a bank that closes at 5 pm.
RC: If this program didn’t exist, what would you do?
DP: I would probably have to get a different job or find some sort of nanny care that would cost me more money than I would be able to afford. It would be a different lifestyle if this didn’t exist.
KidsLINK is largely funded by Greater Gallatin United Way. Here’s its President and CEO, Danica Jamison.
“We get calls from parents all day long at United Way [who] say, ‘I don’t know what I would do without the afterschool kidsLINK program,’” Jamison says.
She says kidsLINK is also essential for many businesses to stay open because parents don’t have to leave work early to pick up their kids.
“This includes almost 400,000 hours of workforce time gained, and we help keep $9.8 million in parents’ pockets of additional pay because of the extra time they were available to work,” Jamison says.
KidsLINK is more affordable than most childcare options, but some parents will pay twice or three times the minimum wage for the flexibility of one-on-one care for their kids, especially infants.
“It’s not cheap to have a nanny in your home, but it is really convenient,” Karissa Erickson, owner and founder of 406 Nannies, says.
Erickson says she started the agency for people vacationing in Big Sky and quickly expanded it to Bozeman after getting daily calls.
She says without any advertising, the agency has grown 200 percent in the last year. Her two-person team manages 80-100 full- and part-time nannies in Big Sky and the Bozeman area.
“It sounds like a lot, but it’s not enough,” Erickson says. “We need to double in size for the Bozeman area to be able to fulfill demand because we currently have a waitlist for part-time placements that we had to just cap, and we can’t add any more families to that list because we can’t find the candidates.”
Erickson says they’ve started hiring from out-of-state, partly because of Montana’s labor shortage.
Across town at the Story Mill Community Center, Holly Crane checks on a terrarium.
“I was just noticing it kind of needs a little bit of water, but they’re in here,” Crane says.
RC: Oh! Oh, there are the worms!
HC: “Yeah, so the kids [were] pulling these guys out and putting them on the table and playing with them and touching them.”
Crane is Bozeman’s Assistant Recreation Manager and one of the leaders for the city’s half-day preschool program.
“We have so many great programs in this town, and every single business is doing an amazing job so you really have to find your niche in this town,” Crane says.“For us, at recreation, it’s outdoor education and a little bit smaller programs, and the kids know we’re a family here.”
Crane says Bozeman’s Recreation Department only takes 15-20 kids in the preschool program to keep the quality of care high. The recreation department also offers summer camps and special events during school breaks when many parents are still working.
One of those is this Wednesday, when 40 kids will hike, play flag football and make pies for $50 per kid. Like a lot of youth programs in Bozeman, Crane says spots fill up really quickly so parents have to plan months in advance.
“People start calling me in August or July, ‘When do I start registering for fall?’ ‘September one. It’s live September one.’ Same with summer. Starting in January, I’ll start getting phone calls.”
Crane says she can have 30-50 people on the summer program waitlists. She says as Bozeman and its bedroom communities continues to grow, so too will the need for childcare.