On the first day of the summer session at Little Bears Playhouse in Girdwood, kids are decked out in rain gear as they make huge splashes in puddles outside.
Little Bears is a fairly small building, essentially one large room with a wall of cubbies separating the toddler and preschool classrooms. Former Little Bears board member Krystal Hoke said the building was originally built as a community center for Girdwood in the 1960s.
“In 1982, it became the child care facility and has operated as such for 40 years,” Hoke said. “But now we are at the end of the line for the usefulness of this building.”
Hoke is the internal project manager for the Girdwood Workforce Childcare Project, the goal being a new child care facility that Little Bears would own and operate. The current building is not only too small to meet demand. Hoke said there are also structural issues with its roof, to the point that parents have to sign a liability waiver for their kids.
But with Little Bears being the only licensed child care facility in Girdwood, residents don’t have many other options.
Finding child care in Anchorage is tough, with years long waitlists and rising prices forcing many parents to choose between working or staying home with their children. In Girdwood, roughly 40 miles south, Little Bears Executive Director Rachel Byers said demand is high in the town of roughly 2,000 people.
Little Bears currently serves 31 kids in the preschool and toddler programs, with a waitlist of around 18 kids. Byers said the lengthy wait time discourages many families from even bothering to apply.
“They ask how long it is, and you tell them people are waiting a year and a half to two years, which is substantially more than what people are getting in Anchorage,” Byers said. “People are just immediately like, ‘never mind.’”
Many parents, including Byers, have to drive their kids to the city of Anchorage for child care. If they work in Girdwood, it can mean a lot of time on the road.
“45 minutes there, 45 minutes back, 45 minutes there, 45 minutes back,” Byers said. “So, three and a half, four hours a day in the car.”
Members of the Little Bears board of directors have been working for more than a decade to expand.
In 2008, the local board of supervisors took up a resolution to find a new location. It also became a top priority in the town’s master building plan in 2014. Anchorage voters rejected a ballot proposition in 2020 that would’ve bonded more than $2 million for a new community building which Little Bears could operate in.
Currently, Little Bears has been offered a building site for the new childcare facility by Pomeroy Lodging, the operator of the Alyeska Resort. The hope is that the new Little Bears facility would be able to serve more than 100 kids and have multiple preschool and toddler rooms, as well as an infant room.
Hoke said the board is closer than ever to reaching its goal. They were approved for a grant by the Anchorage Assembly for $1.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding last year. The catch is the board needs to raise funds to match that amount, and Hoke said they’ve got about a year to do it.
“So we are getting creative as to how we might come up with the solution,” Hoke said. “But we know that we need more money, we need donations. And ultimately, we’re going to need more grants to get to where we need to go.”
One place the board is hoping to get some of that funding is from the state, where child care has become a hot topic. Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced in April that he’d be putting together a task force to address child care issues in Alaska. Almost two months later, a spokesman for the governor said the state is still in the process of appointing members to the task force.
Additionally, the Legislature appropriated about $7.5 million in grant funding in the budget for child care, but Byers said the funding isn’t really designed for the kind of expansion Little Bears is looking for.
“That money would be used to bolster the salaries and increase them,” Byers said. “I also believe that this task force is meant to kind of look at how to figure out and help solve problems. So I don’t even know if it’s really to take action as much to do research at this point.”
Byers said Little Bears has already made strides to help retain its staff, including increasing its tuition rate to buff up salaries, as well providing various benefits to employees.
“We did hiring bonuses and incentives and ski passes and commuter stipends,” Byers said. “Everything we could think of to have people come on.”
Their biggest issue is really the space.
Hoke said with more capacity at Little Bears, families in the expensive ski resort town wouldn’t have as many tough financial decisions.
“Far too often people are removing themselves from the workforce to deal with it,” Hoke said.
And while there are economic benefits to expanding Little Bears, Byers said at the end of the day, it’s the children who’d benefit the most.
“It really shouldn’t be anything more than like, what do these children deserve,” Byers said. “And they deserve to be in a big building that can accommodate their growing needs, and not you know, inside a building that’s from the 1960s.”
In the meantime, the kids at Little Bears will continue their summer curriculum, which includes learning about botany and insects, with small jars with caterpillars lining one of the shelves.