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RANDOLPH, Neb. | Faced with a shortage of day care options in their town, Randolph residents did what those in many small towns do when faced with a challenge.

They came together, figured out a solution and raised the money to pay for it.

In this case, folks in Randolph may have outdone themselves. Thanks to a unique partnership between the school district and the community foundation, Randolph went beyond solving the day care shortage and created a facility that should not only provide child care, but also give youngsters a developmental and educational boost.

On Jan. 8, the community celebrated the opening of Cardinal Kids Learning Center, which is licensed to care for up to 75 children age 6 weeks to 5 years old.

"It's one of the best things that a community can do is give its young people a place to grow and learn," said Gary Van Meter, Randolph's former community developer and a member of the nine-member board that oversees the nonprofit center, which is housed in 3,200 square feet of renovated space in Randolph Elementary School.

Inside, children will be grouped by age into one of three rooms, each overseen by teachers with backgrounds in education or early childhood development who are making sure kids are receiving not only basic care but also taking part in activities designed to further their social, emotional and cognitive development.

"It's going to give kids a head start on their education," said Melissa Campbell, who was hired as the center's director in October.

The opening capped an effort that began about four years ago, when a Randolph Area Foundation survey found a need for more day care providers in town. Community leaders went to work on a solution.

The school district was asked to provide a day care center, but after a lengthy study, the school board determined it would not be economically feasible. Efforts to find a private entity to operate a center were unsuccessful.

"We were pretty much at the stage of dropping it," said Mary Miller, Randolph Elementary School principal and learning center board member.

Community leaders didn't quit, however. They formed a nonprofit corporation within the Randolph Area Foundation this summer to continue seeking a solution. Along the way, Miller said, they decided they wanted a center that went beyond basic day care, something that provided an early childhood development aspect to prepare children for school.

The school board joined in and soon came a plan in which a corporation board would oversee the center, to be housed at the school, and the district's cardinal mascot was incorporated into the center's name.

The school district renovated an area at the elementary school that had contained two locker rooms and band, art and speech rooms -- all space Miller said had been underutilized. In the meantime, $85,000 was raised. Up to $20,000 more could result from a challenge grant established by a Randolph High School alum. The center also recently received a $10,000 grant from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. More than 1,500 fundraising letters will be sent to Randolph alums.

"It just seemed like everybody came together and wanted this to happen," Campbell said.

It happened all right. Each room is set up as a school classroom with brightly colored toys and equipment. Colorful paintings with Peter Pan and Dr. Seuss themes cover the walls.

Campbell has hired three full-time and two part-time employees. Once the center gets to full capacity, including an after-school care program for children age 6-13, she expects to add two or three more. Not only is the center providing a needed service, it's creating jobs.

The center has the potential to attract new residents, too, Van Meter said.

"It will create a magnetic community for young families," he said. "Young families need a place where their children can be safe and raised well."

The center's rates are higher than what typical day care providers charge, so in an effort to make the center more affordable, businesses have contributed to help pay the costs for children of their employees. It's also hoped that scholarships for children in need can be established.

"It's just a really good situation for parents and a top-notch situation for the children," Miller said.

The persistence many showed in getting to this day paid off. The community may have had a day care shortage, but it definitely had a surplus of people willing to solve the problem.


Court reporter

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