Closure of a child care center in Essex Junction sends families scrambling for options

Co-owners Robin Holland, left, and Doris Sleeman are closing Kinderworks, their child care business in Essex. Seen on Tuesday, Aug. 2. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

After 26 years in business, Kinderworks Child and Family Center in Essex Junction will close its doors on Aug. 19, leaving some families scrambling to find a new child care center.

Run by Robin Holland and Doris Sleeman, the facility is licensed for 42 children but has 27 enrolled due to a lack of staffing, according to Sleeman.

“We were having problems hiring before the pandemic, and it has sort of gotten worse since then,” she said.

A fully staffed roster would include nine employees, but they have five. Despite posting jobs, Kinderwork’s owners said they have not found any takers. 

Meanwhile, Kids & Fitness Preschools at the Edge, a local gym and fitness club, was also looking for child care workers. At one point, Michael Feitelberg, one of the owners, said he decided to reach out to smaller high-quality preschools in the area “to see if they were interested in selling or in coming and joining our team.” 

He approached Kinderworks, and Holland and Sleeman decided to take him up on it. Four of Kinderworks’ five full-time workers will soon be employed at the Edge’s Essex Junction branch.

Employee wages at Kinderworks range from $13 to $18 an hour, Sleeman said. Qualified preschool teachers start at $20 an hour, Edge officials said, and they are currently offering a $1,000 signing bonus.

Sleeman’s daughter, Kathryn Fabiano, now 26, attended Kinderworks as a 3-year-old, when it first opened in 1996. 

“I loved it. It was my second home,” she said. “So I ended up growing up here, and all through college I came back on my breaks and worked.” 

Six years ago, Fabiano returned to take a full-time job at Kinderworks caring for 2-year-olds. She is among the employees who are taking new jobs with the Edge. 

The closure leaves many families struggling to find other options. Feitelberg said about half of Kinderworks’ children — 13 out of 27 — have signed up with the Edge’s program, and others are considering it. But the Edge’s higher costs are prohibitive for some of them. For others, the logistics don’t work out. 

Among them are Hinesburg resident Kate Littlefield. She and her spouse work in schools in Essex and have had their twins enrolled at Kinderworks since they were babies. The couple paid $600 a week at Kinderworks combined but said the Edge would cost "markedly more." Plus, the Edge does not allow drop-offs before 8 a.m. — a problem for parents such as Littlefield and her spouse who start work early. 

According to a price sheet shared by Feitelberg, five-day-a-week child care costs at the Edge range from $248.55 to $353 for club members and $275 to $380 for non-members after a one-time, non-refundable $150 registration fee per child.

Kinderworks offers a flat rate for child care — $240 for full-time five-day-a-week — and a part time rate of $59 per day, according to Sleeman. 

The Edge will allow the Kinderworks rates for the first year but wants families to pay full price starting the second year, according to Littlefield, who said she tried negotiating with them to no avail.

“At first I was shocked and really sad, but now I’m angry,” Littlefield said. 

Knowing how tight availability is, she said she signed up for the last two spots at Kinderworks when she was 6 weeks pregnant. Her twins got in when they were 7 months old in the summer of 2019. They are now 3 ½.

The day Kinderworks announced it was closing, Littlefield said she contacted every child care facility within a 10-mile radius and managed to find a spot for them at another center in Essex. 

“We got really lucky,” she said, adding that there are families who have not found any spots and cannot afford the higher cost.

Raising children while working is hard enough for families, Littlefield said, and the challenge of finding affordable care only adds to the stress. She suggested the state should do more to fund early child care.

Mirroring a national trend, child care in Vermont has become prohibitive for many families and unsustainable for businesses in recent times, problems the pandemic has compounded. Salaries near the minimum wage and a lack of basic benefits such as health insurance have long made it difficult for the child-care sector to attract workers. A pandemic-era wave of resignations has exacerbated the situation.

A new report recently noted that Vermont’s child care and early education administration is “fundamentally broken,” with staffing shortages, disorganization and a lack of coordination among state agencies.

Sleeman said staffing has become increasingly tough over the past five years and Covid-19 has not helped. 

“It feels like things are out of balance for families to have a career, affordable home and quality child care,” she said.

She recalled how Kinderworks started: A previous child care center abruptly closed on a Friday leaving employees and families out of work and child care. At that time Sleeman, Holland and Elaine Ducharme, a previous partner, were taking care of children in various family homes and looking for the right space to open a child care facility. 

“Within 10 months of the previous closure, the three of us had KinderWorks Child and Family Center up and operating,” Sleeman said.

“Kinderworks closing is a huge loss to our community,” said Essex Junction resident Jac Treanor who works at the Bellcate School in Essex and placed students at the child care center to gain work skills. “My son was fortunate enough to go there, and my students did work experiences there and some even became employees. They treat all kids like family and remember them long after they’ve graduated.” 

Also a locally owned business, the Edge is a health and fitness club with four branches, including two with child care centers — Essex and South Burlington. They have a combined staff of 75, with 200 children enrolled aged 6 months to 6 years.

“We understand that this is a very important part of a child’s life, and we have a lot of respect for Kinderworks, what they've done and we're excited to welcome them,” Feitelberg said. “We share a similar philosophy when it comes to preschools and early education and we look forward to many, many years together continuing on with that mission.” 

While bigger and with more resources than the smaller child care center, Feitelberg said they remain short staffed and would hire 10 new employees tomorrow if they could find them. 

“I would categorize finding staff for our preschools at a crisis level,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the cost of child care at the Edge.

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Auditi Guha

About Auditi

Auditi is Chittenden County editor at VTDigger. Originally from Calcutta, India, she graduated from Emerson College with an MA in journalism. She has worked as an editor and reporter for several newspapers, and in various beats. Most recently, she covered race and justice at Rewire.News, and higher education at the New Bedford Standard-Times. She previously worked at several Massachusetts newsrooms. She is a mentor for young reporters through the Report For America program, founded the Boston chapter of the South Asian Journalists Association, and is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Email: [email protected]

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