By taking a fresh look at how to offer more child care, Lindsborg officials are seeking to recast the town’s future and challenge established narratives about the prospects for growth in rural Kansas.
Two years ago, Lindsborg’s town leaders and community partners took a hard look at what was needed to ensure that their community could thrive into the future. They surveyed residents and determined if something wasn’t done about child care soon, their town’s viability was in doubt.
The problem wasn’t jobs. Residents of Lindsborg, a city of 3,300 people located between McPherson and Salina near Interstate 135, have plenty of access to those. (McPherson County, where Lindsborg is located, had an unemployment rate of just 3.2% in October, well below state and national averages.) Rather, the biggest need facing the community was providing enough places for those workers to send their young children while they worked those jobs.
Child care was crucial. And there just wasn’t enough of it.
“The Strategic Alliance, which is represented by the city, college, school district, hospital and nursing facility here, had all identified child care as the No. 1 obstacle to future development,” says Lucas Neece, Lindsborg’s assistant city administrator.
Efforts to deal with the problem would challenge established narratives about the future prospects of many Kansas communities and would require local officials to work across factions with two distinct groups – those who need child care and those who don’t.
When officials unveiled the concept of building a new Sprout House child care center at a community-wide meeting in September 2019, it met with mixed reactions.
“For folks who look at the prosperity in our region and understand we need more folks to come work in order for our prosperity to continue and to grow, they are excited,” Neece says. “For folks who are pessimistic about the future of rural Kansas and don’t think Lindsborg can grow and aren’t sure it is worth investing into the growth of Lindsborg, they aren’t excited about the project.”
Step one toward moving the needle became helping members of the community better understand the problem and how inadequate existing options were. Step two necessitated helping those residents understand that a lack of child care doesn’t hurt just parents but the community itself because it created what for some was an insurmountable barrier to workers settling in town.
When all is said and done, Lindsborg hopes to address not just its own child care challenge but implement a solution that can serve as a model for other communities that must provide the services and amenities necessary to foster economic growth in the 21st century. The efforts are made more difficult because they come at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has raised the heat on child care shortages nationwide as the pandemic has forced working parents to cope with closed school buildings and the cancellation of other activities.
Why Lindsborg Needs More Child Care
What exists now in Lindsborg is a string of make-do facilities, Neece says.
The current child care is located in a 1910 bungalow-style house, a nearby building, a nursery room in the Messiah Lutheran Church, and after-school care at the Soderstrom Elementary School. Sprout House currently has space for 8 infants, 12 toddlers, 10 preschoolers, and space for 28 in after-school care at Soderstrom Elementary School during the school year.
“We already have space for 58 kids, in other words,” Neece says. “When we think about planning for growth and trying to help meet the need for 75 additional spots in Lindsborg identified by Childcare Aware (a statewide advocacy group that tracks child care availability), we are looking at six rooms that meet KDHE (Kansas Department of Health & Environment) ratios.”
The proposed new Sprout House center will accommodate 67 children – nine infants, 10 toddlers, 20 preschoolers, and 28 school-age children. The building site will allow for expansion, and the facility will meet accessibility standards.
“What we have now is a repurposed house that is in deteriorating condition and that was never really appropriate for child care,” Neece says. “It was a jury-rigged situation and never had enough spots for children.”
Parents are seeking child care in private homes or driving 30 minutes or more to leave children at facilities in nearby communities.
Or they may choose to stay home for lack of any better options.
Pamela Ash, a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at Smoky Valley Middle School, ended up resigning her position when she couldn’t find child care after her daughter was born five years ago.
“The day care wasn’t able to take a newborn until December, and our daughter was born in July,” Ash says. “We were struggling over what do we do the first four months of school. We did the math and were like, what I bring home as a teacher and what we would be having to pay in day care, it doesn’t pan out.”
When their daughter was 18 months old, they found an elderly woman to care for her. “I think she has watched half the people in town as they have grown up here. She was able to take Oona three mornings a week, and I actually went back to work.”
Sally Hefner and her husband, Chock, have three children – ages 6, 3, and 1. He is a sales and marketing representative; she’s a teacher. When their 1-year-old was born, they wanted to find child care. There was an opening, but not exactly what they were looking for.
“We ended up paying for an opening for close to a year before she started going,” Sally Hefner says. “Because they could fill the spot otherwise, so they asked us if we wanted to make sure we had a spot in August, so we started paying for it ahead of time.”
They paid $3,600 for seven months before their daughter even crossed the threshold.
Glen Suppes, superintendent of Smoky Valley Public Schools, says child care is always a concern for teachers who have young children.
“The two things they are looking for when they want to come to Lindsborg is housing and child care,” Suppes says. “That’s always a stressor. … I hear the stories of people struggling or maybe have to stay home because they have trouble finding child care providers – maybe somebody is ill, and they don’t have any other place to take them. I know a lot of these families that struggle to find good child care and aren’t happy, but they are settling.”
More importantly, young families may simply choose to not live in Lindsborg, Neece says, in search of more supportive areas to raise their children.
Suppes says that once the new Sprout House is built, the town’s recruiting efforts will be easier.
“It’s a major attraction to some people who don’t know anybody here when they come here and ask, ‘What are we going to do with our little ones?’“
Across Kansas, rural communities, large and small, are recognizing that without high-quality child care, it is difficult to recruit the workforce needed to help them prosper.
Child care is such a crucial need, it is considered to be on a par with broadband internet access, affordable and quality housing, public school systems, and affordable health care.
If communities can provide that litany of services, they have a chance to grow, Neece says.
Communities lacking child care, though, can find themselves unable to attract a sizable portion of prospective employees.
David Hay, vice president and manager of the First Bank Kansas’ Lindsborg branch, says he and his wife turned their own home into a day care in 2009 because the town’s existing facility wasn’t enough.
“The facilities were not up to par,” Hay says. “They did a great job with what they had available to them, but it is hard to convert a house and another building into a workable child care center.
“They always needed work, and the facility was not really supportive of having kids in all one area where the director could keep an eye on what was going on.”
Once the Hays opened their home, they constantly got phone calls from local parents wanting to know if they had any openings.
“The center was full and so were we,” Hay says. “If we were to have a new center, that would be a great thing to have in our back pocket – a way to attract people to the town and to take care of people. I know there are people driving out of town for day care reasons just because there is nothing available here.”
Adequate child care is more important than merely serving a babysitting function. If children receive quality early childhood programs and experiences, it often leads to better educational and employment outcomes, Neece says.
“We have a lot of employment in our region between Saline County and McPherson County,” he says. “Lots of places in rural Kansas have more employment than employees. Ours in McPherson County has an incredible amount of really good advanced manufacturing jobs – and difficulty in filling those jobs. So, the question becomes: How do we invite people to come share our prosperity? Child care solves a couple of problems – for folks that are already living here and for those thinking about taking a job but don’t have child care support.
“If we have really good child care, it helps to solve that problem.”
The City’s Legacy
Lindsborg’s challenges mirror those of many other Kansas communities, but Lindsborg residents have capitalized on preserving their town’s unique history to carve out advantages – the arts, higher education and tourism – that have positioned it to grow.
During the late 19th century, emigrants from Sweden came to Kansas, where they hoped to find framtidslandet, “the land of the future.” Between 1867 and 1869, 80,000 Swedes, many of them poor, fled famine in their homeland.
Kansas was reason enough for these immigrants to have hope. The newly formed state offered land, opportunity and a chance to create new lives.
Many newcomers took advantage of the Homestead Acts passed by Congress – beginning in 1862 – that allowed settlers to claim land in the Midwest and West.
The most notable Swedish colony in Kansas was Lindsborg, founded in 1869, but others – such as Falun, New Gotland, Smolan and Salemsborg – sprouted along the Santa Fe and Kansas Pacific railroad lines.
Within 10 years, the Swedish communities in Kansas had been established – but just barely.
Within that decade, those Swedish immigrants, as did other homesteaders across Kansas, faced droughts, blizzards and a devastating grasshopper plague. And although the communities were established, they were rough at best.
Many of the homesteaders survived in sod houses and dugouts in hills.
In 1879, 22-year-old Carl Aaron Swensson and his wife, Alma, arrived in Lindsborg, where he became pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church. Within two years, he started Bethany College for the immigrant children of the parish to receive a higher education.
That next winter, Alma Swensson, a gifted singer, began working with Bethany Lutheran parishioners, many of whom did not speak English, to learn George Frideric Handel’s Baroque-era oratorio “Messiah.”
She taught a phrase at a time, both notes and English words.
On March 28, 1882, the Bethany Oratorio Society performed “Messiah” at Bethany Lutheran as a fundraiser for the new college.
It was such a success, Alma Swensson took the show on the road, “in lumber wagons along dusty Kansas roads, to the neighboring towns of Salemsborg, Salina and New Gotland,” Time magazine reported in 1939 when it featured an article about Lindsborg’s “Messiah.”
Soon the town was billed as the “Oberammergau of the Plains” referring to the city in Germany that has produced the Passion Play every 10 years since 1634. (The COVID-19 pandemic ended a streak dating back to the bubonic plague by forcing postponement of the Bavarian town’s play until 2022.)
For years, trains from across the state and nation brought music lovers to Lindsborg’s annual Messiah festival.
At nearly the same time, Lindsborg became widely known for Birger Sandzen, a prolific painter and printmaker who lived and taught in Lindsborg from 1894 until his death in 1954. He created more than 3,000 paintings, 328 prints and countless watercolors and drawings. Sandzen was also known for helping found the Prairie Print Makers, a group largely made up of Midwestern artists who nurtured one another’s work and encouraged everyday people to collect their art.
When passenger trains stopped coming to Lindsborg, the community banded together and began tourism promotions of “Little Sweden” and hosting events such as Hyllningsfest to celebrate the town’s Swedish heritage.
The community is well known for its promotion of the arts and a downtown filled with unique shops, a park system with trails and nicely kept houses and yards.
“We don’t have a lot of mansions in Lindsborg,” says Mayor Becky Anderson. “My dad used to say we don’t have that – but we have good, solid prairie architecture.”
But despite its unique assets, growth has lagged. Town leaders want to change that by having Lindsborg reach a population of at least 5,000.
But it can’t be done unless there are more child care options. And, in a way, the project to develop early education options in Lindsborg may have its roots in the community’s history of building its prosperity through educational amenities.
“The people who first settled here embraced education immediately,” Anderson says. “They built a grade school, high school and then said, ‘We need a college.’ From the beginning, education has been celebrated. And because Bethany really hooked their star to the arts, through the Messiah festival and Birger Sandzen and other artists who chose this for their home, that was always really important.
“When you think about the things that are interesting and important to us, I think you have to put the arts and education at the top.”
When Neece and his family moved to Lindsborg two years ago, he was recruited, in part, to build a vision and help develop a child care facility.
Although there has yet to be an architect’s rendering of the new facility, an anonymous donor has pledged $1 million to the project, and another $50,000 has been raised through gifts and grants. Plans are to raise an additional $1 million to construct a 10,000 square-foot building with four classrooms, a kitchen and support spaces.
The city of Lindsborg has provided a 4.7 acre site for the center while charging $1 for a 99-year-lease. But no tax monies will be used to support the center.
Ground is expected to be broken on the site in the first few months of 2021.
One of the most important features – but one that’s easily overlooked – is that the new building will have an appropriate number of child-sized toilets.
“Some of the impact of our current facility is that there are not enough little toilets,” Neece says. “So, lots of kids are either constipated or not able – even though they are potty-trained – they are having more accidents than they would in an appropriate facility.”
The building will be large enough to host play activities indoors as well as outdoors. Kansas weather often dictates day by day where children can play. The property also includes the city’s Tree Station, essentially a nursery for younger trees to grow before being transplanted elsewhere in the city, which can easily be adapted into a forest-inspired playground for the children.
Lindsborg leaders have consulted the University of Kansas’ Hilltop Child Development Center in Lawrence for inspiration, and one issue came quickly into focus.
“A lot of centers in central Kansas really struggle with staffing, in large part because the salaries they are paying are extremely unattractive,” Neece says. “You are looking at (wages of) $8.25 to maybe $9.50 an hour. You can go anywhere else in central Kansas and talk about working at Casey’s or Target or anything else and make more money. The center in Lawrence pays $15 an hour.”
The goal is to raise the pay of the center’s workers from levels typical in central Kansas to what they receive in Lawrence. Tuition rates, about $600 a month presently, would also likely go up as part of a push to recruit qualified staff, which Neece says will lead to higher quality child care.
The vision for the new center includes making it durable – enough to last 50 years into the future – by building it for low maintenance, energy efficiency and making it bright and homey.
And the new facility will have spacious parking for parents dropping off and picking up their children.
The Future Reality
Still one of the biggest hurdles town leaders face is simply educating the public about child care needs, says RoJean Loucks, a Sprout House board member who spent much of her career working in early childhood development.
“The critical importance of a child’s brain development happens within the first three years of life,” Loucks says. “In order for that to happen optimally, a child needs to spend time with loving caregivers in an environment conducive to play-based learning. This is the environment we are striving to provide with our new facility.”
Loucks say she became involved with the current Sprout House board because she cared deeply about the quality of services being offered.
“The center was going through a difficult transition,” she says. “No plans were on the table at that point for a new facility.”
The point is, Loucks says, there is never enough child care, and not enough qualified child care situations.
“We are not talking babysitting, we are talking about somebody who can help with children’s physical, emotional growth; socio-economic growth; and provide that in a way that builds communities,” she says. “When families know they can count on care like that, they feel more confident in leaving children so they can go to their occupations or jobs.”
As integral as child care is seen to Lindsborg’s well-being, community decision makers regard housing and a wellness center as vital, too.
“We came up with the three goals we wanted to work on, and one was new housing in Lindsborg,” says Anderson. “We had no lots left in the whole community, and we were looking for a developer to purchase land. We knew which land we were hoping they would buy.”
And they all connect together in a very visible way.
On the east side of Lindsborg was a sleepy wheat field. It seemed the best answer for a housing development, a child care center and wellness development.
“The center we are working on now, we think will change the model … not just for rural Kansas but for Kansas,” Neece says.
With the city’s Tree Station providing the backbone for a new playground, the Children’s Discovery Forest, the new center will be able to provide a spacious mix of indoor and outdoor activity options for children.
“There are a lot of windy days in Kansas and a lot of days that are too hot or cold for children to be outside,” Neece says. “This will be a space where they can really run around.”
Lindsborg City Council member Rebecca Van Der Wege is hopeful the center will inspire state legislators to discuss ways to more extensively fund child care and early education.
“We are encouraging the League of Municipalities to do the same in their conversations,” Van Der Wege says. “Because this is so fundamental to all other parts of society. Child care is one of our priorities we have shared with our state senator and representative. Lindsborg would love to lead this discussion. We aren’t going to wait for the state to come and do it for us, but we can get a lot farther if it is an issue that the state can embrace and advance.”
Kelsey Pfannenstiel, another board member at Sprout House, has two children – a 6-year-old and 4-year-old. She commutes daily to her job in Salina.
“In our own story, we had to drive opposite directions 30 minutes just to have child care for several months,” Pfannenstiel says. “For a long time, we – as a community – have done the get-by. It’s hard to move forward.
“But when you hear multiple families telling the same story and hear others share a forward- thinking vision, this becomes one of the keys in helping Lindsborg continue to thrive and grow.”
- How would you describe the adaptive challenge facing Lindsborg when it comes to providing child care?
- What lessons do you think other communities in Kansas could learn from Lindsborg’s efforts?
- What role do you think narratives – meaning the stories that get told about rural communities or that they tell about themselves – play in making progress on difficult challenges harder or easier?
A version of this article appears in the Winter 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
Sign up for email updates about The Journal’s content.