Totally Tots in Hayden close to opening, adding much needed child care access
HAYDEN — Miranda Watts is making an unexpected return to the high school she graduated from in 2014, but the building is no longer Hayden High School, and she isn’t a student.
In this classroom, she’s the teacher.
“It’s just cool to see the building alive again,” Watts said. “I had math class in this classroom and now I’m teaching in this classroom.”
Instead of teaching freshman algebra, Watts will be in charge of a group of toddlers at the Yampa Valley’s newest child care center — one that has been in the making for nearly three decades.
Totally Tots doesn’t have a firm opening date yet, as it’s awaiting appropriate state licensing, but the new child care center is expected to open in the coming weeks. Even though it’s not open, Totally Tots already has is a waitlist, underscoring the need for more child care facilities not only in Hayden, but across the valley.
Access to child care in this part of the valley hit a crisis point last summer when the only center in South Routt County was forced to close because of a lack of staffing. Totally Tots won’t replace all 40 spots lost, but adding any will be helpful.
Hayden Mayor Zach Wuestewald said when the town began discussing the prospect of buying the old high school to create the Hayden Center, space for child care was always a central piece. The town renovating and owning the space and the nonprofit operating the center hopes to make it sustainable long term. It’s a model currently being studied in Steamboat.
“(Town leaders) wanted something to be the heart of the town,” said Celena Frentress, preschool teacher at Totally Tots, referring to the Hayden Center. “Child care is the heart of the town.”
Founded in 1994, the original goal of Totally Kids was to build a child care center in Hayden, where the only local options are a couple home providers.
But Caroline Gregory, who then was on the board and has since become director of Totally Kids, said the dynamic of Hayden likely wouldn’t have be able to support it then.
“They had family members around or they were seasonal workers, so it just felt like a day care center wasn’t feasible,” Gregory said. “Things have changed.”
Now, Hayden is a small community with big ambitions as it transitions away from an economy dominated by coal power production. Hayden’s population grew by 7% since the 2010 census, a faster pace than the county as a whole.
Gregory said Totally Tots opening will mean Totally Kids will have come full circle, adding a piece of the community they long felt it needed. Town Manager Mathew Mendisco said building the childcare facility is one of the most important things the town has done in decades.
“How are people going to get to their jobs if they don’t have child care?” Mendisco asked, rhetorically. “The economic benefits for a community to have a child care center, the return on investment is huge.”
Run by locals
In addition to Watts, Frentress is also a graduate of Hayden High School. Totally Tots Director Maggie Tucci is a graduate of Moffat County High School in Craig. Each of them now lives in Hayden.
“Locals helping locals,” Watts said.
The center will offer infant, toddler and preschool care, covering children as young as eight weeks old. Both the infant and toddler programs, which can take seven and 10 children respectively, are already full, with some families signing up months before they expected to give birth. It will be a regional asset, with children from Craig and Steamboat already signed up to attend.
There is still room in the preschool program, likely because there already is a preschool program through the Hayden School District.
“I’m sure that once the word gets out, we’ll definitely pick up more,” Frentress said.
A new model
The town of Hayden is renovating the Hayden Center, including all of the space occupied by Totally Tots. Mendisco said the town is waiting to hear back about several grants, and if they all come in as hoped, renovations on the community center could be done by September.
If they are not awarded some grants, work may be split into phases, but the Totally Tots segment is complete except for a few finishing touches, like a washer and drier. The town and Totally Tots have a contract to use the space, which is separated from much of the rest of the community center.
While child care is often an issue advocated for by those affected, Mendisco said adding child care center was a top priority for residents when surveyed about their hopes for the Hayden Center.
“The biggest thing is that we want to see this survive and be sustainable for the future,” Wuestewald said.
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