Walking into the backyard of child care provider Michelle Weiler is like walking into a children’s fairy tale. It is the magic of Alice in Wonderland, the secret hidden place of the Secret Garden and full of children having as much fun as if they were in Peter Pan’s Never Never Land. But this isn’t a story of how they care for the children they watch; it is the story of how they care for each other.
Sue Yoakum and Michelle Weiler have been running their child care businesses and helping raise the children in each other’s care for over 20 years, Pam Harris joined the duo, making it a trio, ten years ago. “We met at Jefferson Park many…many years ago.” says Sue. The women smile as they scan the grassy backyard and play area, ensuring all is well with the little ones. Pam pipes up, “Let me tell you my story. I started [my child care] in the spring of 2013, and I walked to the park with my kids, and I saw these guys in the park, and I thought, ‘I’d walk in there and see what was going on,’ and right away they said, ‘Oh, are you doing child care?’ I was a little scared to say, ‘Yes, I just started,’ but right away, they said, ‘Wonderful!’ They took me right under their wings. I don’t know if I would’ve lasted if I didn’t have these two.”
Their story is a perfect example of how the art of running a child care business takes innovation, a touch of bravery, creativity, and consistent support. Together, the three women have been running their businesses, caring for children, and building a child care support system for a decade. I asked them, “Do you see each other every day?” and I was answered with a resounding “YES!” Michelle expands, “We talk to each other frequently whether that is getting together – and we do that weather permitting, whether here, at the park, or rotating yards. Without these two, I would hardly be able to talk to another adult!” Sue adds as if finishing each other’s thoughts. “We get together on the weekend and do our planning for the week. We all have a curriculum that we tailor to meet the needs of the children in our care according to their ages and developement.
Child care is a uniquely run business without a natural form of networking. In the past, there has been no formal collective where ideas can be exchanged and tips traded, but the EDC is working on changing that with the creation of the Mentorship Program – one that Sue Yoakum, Pam Harris, and Michelle Weiler have demonstrated retains child care providers.
Adaptability is critical for these providers making a career out of child care. It is one of the rare professions where your target audience is constantly changing, a profession where you are adapting every day and every year to the needs of the children – and the parents – in your care. “COVID was really, really hard.” Sue says as the other three nod in agreement. “But we were able to get together, plan our policies and how to keep our families safe.” Child care is also one of the only professions integrated 100% into one’s personal family and home life. Imagine seeing your doctor in their home, every illness being brought into their living room ‘office’ – that is the challenge providers face, a business that is run completely out of their home. Another challenge the EDC hopes to support is reducing the stress providers sometimes feel they have to carry by themselves through the creation of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Through this program, providers can access mental health support for everything from everyday life stressors to helping resolve more significant issues – like the management of a business and personal relationships with parents and the demands of meeting licensing requirements. “It is a lot,” says Pam, referring to what it’s like to be a new provider.
With the Mentorship Program and EAP Program kicking off, providers will continue to find the support that these three find in each other and foster in other providers throughout Kandiyohi County. “These two were my saving grace,” says Pam of her friends. “And you are the saving grace to working parents,” I tell them. We all nod with slight smiles on our faces – scanning the yard full of children before we all break off to assist a little person in need – a wipe of the nose, intercepting a leaf from entering a tiny open mouth, someone headed down a slide head first. The day goes on, and the excellent work does, too. It is almost lunchtime, and the providers warn the children it’s time to go. In unison, the children all start picking up. It is time for the next part of their days. I wave goodbye to the cheerful bunch and know that the work isn’t over for us either. The Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, local partners like the City of Willmar, United Community Action Partnership, and Kandiyohi County, among others, will continue to strive to do equally good work for those in-home and child care center providers that help our economy go round.
This article was first published in the Winter 2024 EDC Newsletter Published in January 2024, Issue 15.