by Matt Benoit
When Kelly Heggem first came to the Child Development Center, she wasn’t an employee or a parent. She was a 3-year-old.
Heggem, now 32, attended the center from the ages of 3 to 5, when the facility was located on Broadway in downtown Bellingham, and now works at Whatcom’s childcare center as an assistant teacher and administrative assistant.
Her daughter, Hazel, who is almost 2, has attended the CDC since she was 15 months old—the earliest possible age for enrollment—and has the very same teacher that Heggem had when she attended the facility as a child.
“I’ve known her for 30 years,” said Heggem of instructor Ruby Hanson. “It’s very cool to have the generational [bridge] of the experiences and play environment.”
If the CDC’s permanent closure, scheduled to occur June 18 due to impending budget cuts, does take place, Heggem will not just be out of childcare—she’ll be out of her only job, too.
Heggem, who also works until mid-April each year as an independent tax practitioner, said she began scouring the Internet for job openings as soon as news of the closure was announced. With such a lack of job openings, Heggem said she is nearly scrambling to find work.
“I only have two months,” she said.
And as far as childcare, Heggem has potential issues as well. She said a lot of the other childcare facilities she’s checked out have minimum enrollment ages of 2-and-a-half to 3 years of age, which means her daughter won’t yet be eligible. “We’re kind of in a bind with figuring out what to do with her for another eight months,” Haggem said.
The closure of the Child Development Center, which has existed for over 30 years and was created when the college was designing a degree program for displaced homemakers, was announced on April 7 to the shock of many involved with the nationally-accredited childcare center. The current on-campus facility has been around since the late 1990s.
Despite the fact that its days may still be numbered, the fight to save Whatcom’s Child Development Center is underway.
After two recent on-campus meetings where parents, educators, and other supporters voiced their sadness and frustration to what made the June 18 closure seem like a foregone conclusion, it now appears the college is at least considering proposed solutions to keep the facility open.
“We are developing a process to carefully examine proposals in order to assess their viability,” said Whatcom president Kathi Hiyane-Brown, in an April 15 e-mail to faculty.
She stated that several ideas and proposals have already been evaluated, and any written proposals were to be forwarded to her office for evaluation by the college’s executive team. Initially, Hiyane-Brown had informed those in attendance at the school’s April 14 Board of Trustees meeting that the board would accept and respond to letters through April 19.
The closure of the Child Development Center was aimed at closing part of an upcoming operational budget cut estimated to be up to $650,000. The college was required to make a $1.2 million cut to its operating budget last year.
The president also said that, after a recommendation by her cabinet, the college “fully plans to pursue conversations with early learning leaders who offered to discuss potential partnerships. We recognize that there are educational models that involve partnerships that may provide stable funding sources.”
According to the e-mail, that funding will need to be more than $387,000 annually in order for the center to meet its operational expenditures and accreditation requirements. That amount is comprised of: current subsidies, which are essentially scholarships given to each CDC family that total nearly $160,000 and are taken from the college’s operational budget; new investment money; and the center’s annual shortfall, which this year was projected to be $47,000.
In addition to the president’s letter, many CDC parents and employees, as well as Whatcom faculty members, have formed an e-mail list to network ideas for saving the center. As of April 23, the list had over 50 people on it. Several involved with the facility are pledging to donate their own money to keep the center in operation, and an effort to create a “steering” committee to re-structure the facility is underway.
If the CDC does indeed close, Ray White, vice president for administrative services, said at the April 14 info meeting on the closure that the building—which is actually part of Kelly Hall—will be mothballed and likely not used for anything in the foreseeable future.
Sean Donoghue-Neider, 27, a Whatcom student and assistant teacher at the center, is another one of the employees who will lose his job if the CDC closes.
“Essentially, financially, I would be ruined,” he said of losing his only job. He added that, given the difficulty of finding another job in a short period of time, the unemployment money he’d get would likely not be enough income to allow him to continue taking classes, or possibly even to continue living in Bellingham.
Like Heggem, those at Whatcom who are parents are struggling to find another source for their childcare.
Amanda Henkel, a Whatcom faculty member and parent whose son has attended the Child Development Center since the fall of 2008, said in an e-mail that closing the facility decreases the access to education for parents who have been laid off and are seeking job retraining.
“The cost of closing could very well impact the college in more negative ways than keeping it open and working to make it meet the needs it needs to meet,” she said.
Although Henkel doesn’t know what she’ll do for childcare for her son if the center does close, she said the announcement doesn’t leave her a lot of time to find something.
“I will not drop my child off just anywhere,” she said. “Five months is not adequate time to find a spot in a quality preschool in Bellingham.”
Carmen Strawn, 35, is a nursing student at Whatcom who is now faced with finding a place for her 2-year-old daughter, Lillian, who has been at the CDC since the fall of 2008.
Although she said Lillian is on several wait lists for other care centers, she will deeply miss the Child Development Center if it closes.
“The staff of the CDC is like family to my daughter and I,” said Strawn in an e-mail. “I always knew that while I was working away she was somewhere learning, playing, and being loved. I have shed many a tear over the last two weeks.”