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Ready SWVA seeks funds to expand access to affordable childcare

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Ready SWVA Panel

Panelists, left to right, Smyth County Schools Superintendent Dr. Dennis Carter, AEP Manager of Economic and Business Development Whitney Czelusniak, United Way of Southwest Virginia (UWSWVA) President and CEO Travis Staton, Ballad Health Senior Vice President of Community Health and System Advancement Todd Norris, and Pulaski County Administrator Jonathan Sweet. UWSWVA’s Scott Robertson, far right, served as moderator.

When schools transitioned quickly and unexpectedly to virtual learning at the pandemic’s outset, a harsh spotlight fell on the lack of affordable childcare in Smyth County and the surrounding region. Yet, now that most schools have returned to full in-person instruction, the childcare need continues.

Last Wednesday morning, Dr. Dennis Carter, Smyth County Schools superintendent, told a gathering of about 150 of the region’s public, private and social sector leaders, “As we transitioned back to in-person instruction, we continue to face child care limitations. Many of our families are unable to work due to limited child care, expense of child care, or lack of after school programs.”

Regional leaders were gathered to discuss what roles their organizations and communities could play in Ready SWVA, an economic development project specifically targeted toward workforce development.

“Southwest Virginia employers have told us the region is losing the young, talented workforce in the labor ecosystem,” said Travis Staton, president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia, which organized the event. “A major barrier to retaining those talented young employees and potential employees is insufficient access to child care.”

The childcare need is significant in this rural section of Virginia.

In a news release, Staton explained that the gap between available childcare slots and the need is more than twice as great in rural Virginia communities (20.4%) than in urban Virginia (9.1%).

During the pandemic, Carter noted that many school “divisions found creative, collective ways to partially meet this need.” As well, he said, many agencies and organizations are continuing the search for solutions. However, the superintendent noted that many of those efforts are being done in an isolated manner. He supports the Ready SWVA initiative that “will help to pull all of our efforts together to meet the needs of the community and to help our parents get back to work and stay in our region to raise their families.”

The Ready SWVA initiative, Staton said, will create a new early childhood system that will expand access to affordable childcare, strengthen the current network of providers, and build a cohort of professional early childhood educators.

“This will create a minimum of 324 new slots across Southwest Virginia through the creation of five new facilities, while at the same time supporting the region’s network of 206 existing childcare providers,” Staton said in the news release.

According to that release, Ready SWVA will:

• Provide quality, accessible child care, allowing current residents who are out of the workforce because of childcare constraints to return to work;

• Develop a regional cohort of professional, credentialed early childhood educators;

• Support regional comprehensive economic development strategies created by each planning district commission to attract new talent, young families and higher-paying jobs;

• Support entrepreneurs in Southwest Virginia by developing an emerging industry sector as a sustainable small business with support from a shared services alliance, and;

• Provide long-term outcomes of a healthy, appropriately educated and trained, financially stable workforce through high quality curriculum preparing young students for school success.

The Ready SWVA team acknowledges that such endeavor comes with a significant price tag.

They project that the initiative will require $16 million in seed money, including $7 million for facilities and three years of operations at $3 million per year.

The United Way of Southwest Virginia is lobbying for that funding to be included in the Virginia’s upcoming state budget. Long-term, the United Way hopes to interconnect federal and state funds with private sector investments to further fund the project.

“The big goal of Ready SWVA is to build public-private partnerships to address childcare issues that are preventing folks and families and individuals from re-entering the workforce or remaining gainfully employed,” Staton said in the release. “Over the next three years, this initiative will work across 21 localities to build an effective quality childcare supply that can help address this problem in our region.”

In addition to Carter, the Dec. 8 event included a panel discussion featuring private sector representatives Whitney Czelusniak from AEP and Todd Norris from Ballad Health, voices from government including Del. Terry Kilgore and Pulaski County Administrator Jonathan Sweet.

Kilgore, in a pre-recorded message, told the crowd he believes the incoming Youngkin administration in Richmond will be supportive. “This is transformational. I think it gives us an opportunity to lead,” Kilgore said. “It’s going to play along Governor-elect Youngkin’s plans to make our community colleges more involved with public-private partnerships. Bringing business training, education and childcare all into the same room is going to create a win-win for everybody.”

Norris said Ballad Health is enthusiastic about Ready SWVA because it brings together players from multiple sectors to address a dire economic need. “The issue of access to childcare has hit home for every business in our region and every business in America,” Norris said, “so it creates a burning platform for us to work together to derive a sustainable solution.”

Czelusniak said Ready SWVA has the opportunity not only to keep Southwest Virginians gainfully employed and to keep businesses running at their full potential, but also creates a unique opportunity to attract young talent and young families back to the region. “Access to childcare impacts a lot of different industries and a lot of different occupations. Ready SWVA is a great way for our region to begin to lay a strong foundation to support the early childhood system in a very robust way. Looking to that long-term support network is very important to the SWVA region’s overall efforts to attract new business opportunities.”

“Utilizing a collective impact model like Ready SWVA, and everyone coming together to address these issues will certainly help alleviate the lack of accessible childcare SWVA parents are facing,” Carter added.

“There is a plan and strategy with achievable stratagems, and there is a region with multiple communities and businesses coming together to get behind a solvable challenge,” Sweet said. “If we strive to work together to solve the childcare access issue it will benefit everyone, including our employers, our education system, each one of us personally.”

Another facet of the childcare issue, Carter said is the push to develop “a universal pre-k program allowing access for all 3 and 4 year olds to public education.”

While Carter called the opportunity to reach many more students wonderful, the superintendent noted that the pre-k initiative brings its own set of challenges.  

“This will take more than a quick adjustment. It will require attention to additional space and instructional staff. This situation [Ready SWVA] lends itself very well to the idea of a public-private partnership to help address those immediate needs until some school divisions can build their capacity.”

Carter concluded, “Our goal is to prepare our children to be productive citizens in society and have the opportunity to achieve tremendous success in our region living, working, and raising their families.  Addressing child care is an important piece to help achieve this goal.”  


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