Filling the void: Churches working to address childcare shortage
As the region continues to struggle with a significant shortage of child care services – with local businesses, municipalities like Township of Acme and the Town of Traverse Cityand organizations like Traverse City Tourism and Cross Connect all engaged in the fight against the crisis – another group is coming forward: the churches. At least three churches have asked in recent weeks to open or expand child care centers – including one in partnership with a local school – in a bid to ease the burden they see both in their congregations and in the community. .
Pine Grove Church this month received unanimous approval from East Bay Township planning commissioners to add a day care center to a building the church purchased earlier this year. Applicant Tracey Bartlett of Pine Grove told planning commissioners that after the church worked with the township several years ago to update zoning rules to allow child care centers as an accessory use in churches, Pine Grove operated a day care center in its main building on Indian Trail Boulevard. But using the same space for childcare and church activities has been “cumbersome,” Bartlett said, because Pine Grove has to frequently change between the two uses. “We looked for a way to solve this problem,” she said.
In February, Pine Grove found its solution: buy the former Community of Christ Church nearby at 813 Parsons Road. Pine Grove plans to move some of its ministry classrooms and its daycare center, called Strong Foundation Childcare, to the Parsons Road building. The building measures 2,694 square feet and has 27 on-site parking spaces. The church is already in preliminary licensing approval with the State of Michigan for the new location and is planning minor changes to the property, including the installation of required fencing around the playgrounds. Bartlett told planning commissioners that Pine Grove had 60 to 80 children “at any one time” on a waiting list for daycare; the new Parsons Road facility is licensed for up to 50 children. The church offers child care for children ages 0 to 12, according to the Pine Grove website.
After touring the site with other planning commissioners, Planning Commission Chairman Dan Leonard said the daycare “looks like a great reuse (for the site)”. He added: “It makes a lot of sense to me…the need is so dramatic. It’s wild. I love it for the site, and I’m sure the community will benefit from it very quickly.
In Garfield Township, the Northern Lakes Community Church appeared before planning commissioners on Wednesday with an application for a Special Use Permit (SUP) to open a preschool and day care center in its building at 5444 Herkner Road , just south of North Long Lake Road. The Loving Neighbors Preschool would be located in a currently underutilized educational/community wing of the church (pictured, rendering), according to church elder Julie Burton. The center would accommodate up to 29 children under the age of 5 and would have a director and a staff of five teachers. The building has 75 parking spaces and could handle both church and child care capacity, according to the SUP app, because the congregation has only 50 members and operates at different times than from daycare.
The Township of Garfield will hold a public hearing on the application at the December 14 planning commission meeting, with approval potentially following in January. Burton tells The ticker that even though the Northern Lakes congregation is mostly older and does not directly need child care – there are very few children in the church, she said – Reverend Dr. Sam Sungsoo Jun and other church leaders saw a need in the community that they felt could address their excess building space.
“Demand far exceeds supply,” she says. “The more we looked at the need, the more we realized we had an opportunity to help. Our mission is “to love God, to love our neighbors, to love ourselves”. It’s a great way to love our neighbors. We really wanted to help young families in our community.
Garfield Township recently received another SUP request for a potential childcare partnership between the Church of the Living God – located at 1514 Birmley Road – and Traverse City Christian School, located just a mile from the church. Depending on the request, TC Christian would open an early learning center within the Living Church of God that could accommodate up to 100 children and more than 15 staff members. The center would be open to children ages 0-6 and would operate during business hours Monday through Friday year-round, with “several scheduled breaks in accordance with the school year calendar,” according to the app. The center would use the church’s existing classrooms and interior space, parking lot (which has 238 spaces) and playground, with minor modifications made to meet licensing requirements. The SUP application is expected to be presented at the Garfield Township Planning Commission meeting on December 14, with additional steps – including a public hearing and possible approval – to follow.
TC Christian Acting Superintendent Chris Butz said the school is following the SUP process as it simultaneously explores licensing and funding to ensure the project is feasible before finalizing plans. “Obviously there’s a huge need for this in town, and this is a great opportunity for us to meet the needs of teachers, existing families and future families,” he says. Anthony Weber, senior pastor at the Church of the Living God, says the church “has been exploring for several years what hosting a daycare would look like in our building. We have a well-functioning facility for this and are aware of the needs of the community. We hope that will happen within the next six months to a year,” he says.
Despite the desire of churches (and partners like TC Christian) to meet community childcare needs, they still face the same burdens – and frustrations – that other providers have cited in trying to get a license and run. “The biggest hurdle we face, and everyone faces, is the start-up cost,” Butz says. While the State of Michigan recently announced its intention to offer grants to child care start-ups with the goal of opening 1,000 new child care programs by the end of 2024, Burton and Butz say they received such low numbers for their grant amounts estimated maximums – $7,000 for Northern Lakes, $10,000 for TC Christian – that they’re planning to rely heavily on private donations to get to the finish line. After receiving an estimate of $200,000 to make minor alterations to the Northern Lakes building, the church – which launched a community fundraising campaign – explore options to reduce costs while meeting licensing requirements. “When you’re just starting out, it’s hard to learn the process and try to figure out all the steps you need to take,” Burton says. “We all feel like we’re working extra part-time work to do it.”
Always, with the Detroit Free Press recently reporting that Grand Traverse County has one of the longest waiting lists for child care in Michigan, leaders say they can’t ignore the urgent need they hear from families — and are ready to step forward to provide solutions. “Honestly, just look at the local waitlists — when you have that kind of need in the community, you can’t help but see if there’s a way to help out,” Butz says.