Fort Wainwright’s spacious new child care center nears completion

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Fort Wainwright Child and Youth Services Coordinator Jessica Spittle explains age-appropriate and child-safe classroom design at the Denegee Child Development Center. (Tim Ellis/KUAC)

Workers are putting the final touches on a new child development center at Fort Wainwright. When it opens this summer, it’ll be the Army’s biggest facility for infants, toddlers and preschoolers. And it’ll take some of the pressure off other Fairbanks-area child-care providers.

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The new center will provide space for 300 infants, toddlers and preschoolers. It’s scheduled to open on June 10th, 2024. (From U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The new Denegee Child Development Center looks a lot like a schoolhouse. And that’s because it’s designed to be used for both child care and early childhood education.

“So we currently have 22 classrooms in this facility. Our largest CDC that we have open right now (in the Army) is only 10. So this one building alone is double that,” said Jessica Spittle, Fort Wainwright’s coordinator of child and youth services.

Spittle said the 43,000-square-foot center will provide enough space for 300 infants, toddlers and preschool-age students. The colorful, well-lit classrooms include child-sized amenities, like knee-high drinking fountains.

“We have all the things that are appropriate to their size,” Spittle said. “And you’ll see when we go in here some of the cutest little fixtures that you wouldn’t see in a school.”

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During a tour of the facility last week, Spittle said that there’s also space for kids to learn through play. Those include two big rooms to romp around in and a 4,000-square-foot multipurpose space for activities and play during cold, dark winter days, wildfire smoke-filled summer days, and for safe space year-round.

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The center’s 4,000-square-foot multipurpose room will provide a safe space for kids year-round, including dark, cold winter days and during wildfire-smoky periods in the summer. (Tim Ellis/KUAC)

“This room is also not just intended for play during cold and smoke season,” she said. “It’s also designed to be a shelter in place.”

Spittle said the multipurpose room is one of the reasons the Army now uses the design of Fort Wainwright’s child development center as a standard for other centers to be built at its other installations.

According to Spittle, the Army built the $33.5 million center because the two existing facilities didn’t provide anywhere near enough space for children of the 6,000 soldiers assigned to Fort Wainwright. Another reason: quality child care is hard to find off-post.

“Just in general, across the state child care is a crisis, is the word they use,” Spittle said. “… And so that has definitely caused a lot of strain for our military community and those outside the gates, as well.”

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Katy Doetsch, a civilian who works for the Army Corps of Engineers on Fort Wainwright, agrees.

“There are a lot of kids and just not enough options to serve the need,” she said. “Opening up the CDC on Fort Wainwright is good for the town as a whole. Because it’s more childcare spots, which will benefit everybody.”

Artwork for the center is stored temporarily in the staff break room. The works are by Alaska artists, and they’re intended to reflect scenes and cultural expressions reflecting the region’s indigenous cultures. The moose at right serves as a sort of mascot for Denegee, which is named after the Tanana word for moose. (Tim Ellis/KUAC)

Doetsch is a construction engineer who, like Spittle, has contributed ideas and suggestions for the new child development center. And she’s had firsthand experience, because she enrolled her kids in one of the older Fort Wainwright centers a few years ago, which enabled her to get a good-paying job on post.

“For moms to feel like they can work … that’s just – it’s huge,” Doetsch said. “Because if you’re a mom and you’ve got an option of whether or not to work, you’re only going to do it if you can find good child care.”

Spittle emphasizes the importance of education, for both the kids who’ll be enrolled in the new facility and the 84 staff members who’ll be overseeing and teaching the kids.

“One of the things I try to push is trying to professionalize this field,” she said. “Historically, people who provide care for children are seen as babysitters. But we know we are early childhood educators.”

Spittle said inadequate pay is perhaps the main reason child care is in short supply, so post officials have been focusing on attracting and retaining staff with better compensation and benefits.

The new center is scheduled to open on or near June 10.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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