Pieces to a puzzle: Idaho’s Teton Valley draws a roadmap to address its child care crisis

A new group is creating collaboratives to help parents and children in the child care desert.
Sarah Benko's 11-month old plays in her living room. The mother of three says she couldn't find affordable child care in all of Teton Valley in Idaho. (Natalie Schachar/KHOL)

Child care is a critical concern in Teton Valley, Idaho, which has seen the closure of various facilities within the last two years. Now members of the community are working together to find solutions to help care for kids and get parents some relief.  

Like many parents in the valley, Sarah Benko said she doesn’t earn enough to be able to afford child care for her four-year-old, two-year-old and 11-month-old.

She said prices at the Driggs private school, Learning Academy, were too high and she looked into Little Lambs Preschool in Jackson, but there were no spots. 

“I inquired with them and got on their waiting list just a few days a week, but I haven’t heard anything and the whole waiting list mentality — it could just be a couple months or next year,” she said. 

A child care desert 

Kristin Livingstone, executive director of the Education Foundation of Teton Valley, said the only licensed child care facility in Idaho’s Teton County for children two and under has a multi-page waiting list. And the future of its current lease remains unclear. 

She said center staff last year asked what they could do.

“I’m a parent of that daycare, so they reached out and they said, ‘Can you help us reach out to local officials and see if there’s something that can be done?’ So I did that on behalf of the daycare as a parent,” Livingstone said.

Livingstone contacted the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, a group trying to solve the child care crisis across the state by creating collaborations in local communities.  Within a week of hearing the cry for help, they helped convene community leaders, nonprofits, the Driggs mayor and others. 

“That response to me told me that this work could be accomplished,” Livingstone said. “And that we could make a real impact and difference when many people are willing to show up with no notice because they hear about this problem and want to be able to fix it.”

Addressing the crisis

As community leaders got more involved, Teton Valley’s Collaborative for Early Learning was formed. 

The collaborative raised roughly $30,000 to help hire a project manager Kristi Meston, who could spearhead its work. 

Meston, who is also a parent, said the valley is at a tipping point. 

“It sure seems like a lot of people are staying home with their kids, which is hard on multiple levels,” Meston said.  “It’s having an impact on our workforce, and that’s why every building in Teton Valley has a help wanted sign. 

Meston said an estimated 30 percent of employees in Idaho’s Teton Valley regularly miss work due to child care issues, and families making various incomes across the board don’t have options. 

“I think that’s a big issue,” Meston said. “I think that’s why some families are leaving the valley and there are other families that are paying far more than they can afford for a nanny share type situation or a home care situation.”

So Meston and the collaborative got to work. 

New initiatives

In December, she and other community members went before the Teton County School Board during a special meeting. They got approval to pursue a lease on nearly a half acre parcel of the district’s property where a donated house could be moved and turned into a child care facility. 

They also helped advocate for the Driggs child care facility Building Blocks Early Learning Center to keep its lease past May.

In early January, they also completed an application for a $1 million dollar grant for early care and education from the Idaho Workforce Development Council.

“I feel like we’re really in the beginning of this story,” Livingstone said. “That we don’t know where it’s going to go, but there’s a lot of people showing up to the table and saying, ‘Let’s figure out what we can make happen and what can we support?’”

Collaborative members said they are continuing to brainstorm about the possibility of creating a co-op and finding a solution that increases pay for child care workers, without shifting the burden to families.  And that Teton Valley is a microcosm of what’s facing families across Idaho and the country. It’s still a small community where people know their neighbors and have strong relationships.  And that they feel poised to excel. 

Benko, the mother of three in Teton Valley, said she recently read about their efforts in the local paper 

“It was almost like a sense of hope,” Benko said. “Like, ‘Wait, people are recognizing this and they actually want to do something?’”

This story was produced in part by a New America Better Life Lab’s Child Care Innovation Reporting Grants.

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About Natalie Schachar

Natalie Schachar is a freelance journalist currently covering the American West for KHOL and various outlets. Her stories have been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times and other publications. She feels that each of her articles contains tiny pieces of her soul which are now floating somewhere on the internet.

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