A recent report from the Joint Fiscal Office showed a decline in childcare providers in Vermont, particularly for in-home childcare providers. Some suggested causes for the decline have been older providers retiring without replacement, as well as new rigorous requirements increasing the workload for providers.

While more studies are in the works to determine exact causes of this decline, a dedicated group of childcare providers have stepped up to provide support for other providers through the Starting Points network, which stretches across all counties in the state.

Childcare providers, mostly registered in-home and some center-based, meet once a month with their regional leaders for networking opportunities, to work on professional development and to participate in workshops to both meet federal and state guidelines as well as improve their own level of care.

“Research shows that networking helps improve quality,” explained Michelle Trayah, the St. Albans district fiscal agent representative. “Through these Starting Points networks they’re able to…guide each other, collaborate with each other, bounce ideas off of each other, and to also offer professional development to their fellow colleagues as well as support.”

Network leaders plan workshops and professional development opportunities for the childcare providers to take advantage of free of charge, using grant monies they apply for from the Vermont Child Development Division and Let’s Grow Kids. They say this helps providers overcome the challenges of new childcare regulations, which went into place several years ago, requiring additional training for providers.

“Just in our region last year, [we] did over 80 hours of free local training and 52 hours of networking and professional development hours,” explained Franklin network leader Tina Lothian. “Those are free to providers so they’re not having to go out and spend lots of extra money that they don’t have.”

She added that most of the time in her region, providers are getting more hours than required due to the expansive opportunities they offer, which also improves the quality of the childcare they provide.

Taralyn Thorne, leader of the Essex/Williston network, said her group is currently in the middle of an eight-week course on American Sign Language, which is completely free for Starting Points members, paid for by the grant. She said last year she was able to attend a regional training sponsored by the Burlington network, which covered the topic of gender identity in young children.

“That was very interesting because…you know that it’s an issue but I wasn’t really thinking about it in my little ones that I’m caring for,” Thorne said. “It was enlightening to [learn] some of those words because I’m not working in the community or in a school system or somewhere where I hear those words.”

Starting Points leaders also help fellow providers work through the complicated regulations and provide emotional support to help them through what can be a confusing path.

“When you have 70 some-odd pages thrown at you of how you should be doing things, it is a little daunting,” Thorne explained.

Swanton network leader Michelle Sheldon said they’ve come up with new forms to help providers keep track of logs and other items in order to stay compliant with regulations. Fairfax leader Lynn Roberts added they work with providers to stay organized and on top of the regs.

“And sometimes [we provide] just all around emotional support for providers and just helping them stay calm,” Lothian explained. “[We’re] helping people help support their families and getting them things they need and getting them in touch with the proper resources.”

Being a Starting Points network leader seems like having a second job, although volunteers are given little compensation for their time. After working a 10 hour day of providing childcare in their own homes, Thorne said leaders can spend another two to three hours attending meetings, emailing or calling other providers to provide assistance or preparing for the next day’s workshop, not including travel time.

“I don’t think the parents of the children we provide care for realize there’s all this behind the scenes work that goes into this,” she said.

St. Albans leader Tami Dodge said having the network of providers gives them support and a place to get answers, which can be difficult when working alone in one’s home.

“They have someone to look to in their own community that relieves their stress and they know that they can count on any one of us,” she said.

The leaders also agreed that having the Starting Points network offers structure and motivation for childcare providers to continue their work of providing high-quality childcare for families.

“The providers that are involved have longevity,” said Thorne, who remarked that most providers in her group have been in the childcare profession for at least a decade. “The people that are involved, that get help, that reach out to other people that have childcare in common, you help each other through the tough times because it is an isolating career.”

Starting Points leaders from the St. Albans region (L to R) Lynn Roberts, Tina Lothian, Michelle Sheldon and Tami Dodge pose for a photo at one of their recent networking events. The leaders assist their fellow childcare providers with regulations and trainings, while providing full-time childcare in their own homes as well.

Roberts added that network leaders are really important role models for other providers.

“When you have people that you respect that are in your field that are stepping up to the plate and showing leadership skills, it makes other people more apt to follow in your footsteps,” she said. “Rather than be complacent in their jobs and just provide care, they’re more apt to go that extra mile and ask for additional resources.”

Roberts added that last year in the Franklin County region, network leaders helped to increase participation among childcare providers in the stars, or quality recognition program, from about 30 to 80 percent by providing support and education on how to apply and maintain their status.

“Just making them aware and giving them the confidence to grow is what it is for me,” Lothian said. “We’ve helped several people that would never even have gotten into the stars program.”

The Starting Points leaders all volunteer their time to provide support and training for their fellow childcare providers, which Trayah said makes them unsung heroes of their communities.

“They’re doing all of this in addition to running all-star quality childcare they’ve been running for over 20 years, it’s crazy,” she said. “They really step up to the plate to do this, to help their community out.”