“We’re removing barriers to help Manistee County families move forward.” – Jason Cross, Director of Little River Band of Ottawa Indians’ Family Services
Jason Cross was a social worker in Manistee County when he observed that a lack of licensed childcare in the area was a major barrier to parents being able to get and keep jobs.
“Much of the employment in Manistee County is shift work, and many jobs fall outside the typical 9-5 work day,” says Jason, “but there were no licensed centers that offered childcare after 6 p.m. or on weekends.”
The problem was especially acute because Manistee County has a high percentage of single parents and many simply could not find work during the hours when childcare was available.
As an active tribal member, Jason knew the Council of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians wanted to do something to help children, so he proposed that they develop their former, vacant casino in Manistee into a childcare center and “so much more.”
Last April, the multi-use and fully licensed Next Generation Learning Center opened its doors to the community and began offering high-quality care and education of children from birth to 12 years old in Manistee County. Seven days a week, the center opens at 5:30 a.m., to accommodate parents who work first shift, and closes at midnight to serve second shift workers. About 100 enthusiastic children are currently enrolled in daycare, afterschool programs and a state-funded preschool all housed under one roof.
“We’re a nature-based center,” says Jason, “and that means no video games. Children are encouraged to play outside, and instead of the typical brightly colored metal playground equipment, they are surrounded by nature. Abundant grass, sand, a garden and dry riverbed encourage the children’s imagination. And the trees are for climbing!”
The center is open to all families in Manistee County. Staff members incorporate the many cultures their children represent, including Hmong, Polish, Finnish and Native American into their programs.
“We want to help children understand the culture they come from and the cultures of those around them,” explains Jason. “These children will grow together over time, and we are building community here with them.”
To help make the center accessible, Manistee County Transportation added it to their bus route, and school busses from Manistee and Onekama transport children between school and the center.
Thanks to partnerships with Baker College and West Shore Community College, students working toward early childhood education degrees can earn credit through internships and practical experience at the center. The center also houses Northwest Michigan Health Services, which provides medical and dental care for adults and children.
Adult education classes are offered on site covering topics that range from nutrition to budgeting. Family service organizations are moving into the building as well and open offices are available to outside agencies so appointments can be scheduled on site with parents when they drop off their children. The economic stability of participating families is improving, and at least five parents have already moved from part-time to full-time employment.
The center’s success is drawing interest from other communities and reflects the big needs that it fills.
“From the beginning, this project was all about collaboration,” Jason recalls. “We had the opportunity to provide – under one roof – a lot of solutions to problems families were facing, and we brought many people to the table to make this work. I knew if we created a center with children at the heart of it, we would get parents there, too.”