Children First, a Spearfish United Methodist Church ministry, closed for three months when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “We closed our doors from March 15-June 15, 2020,” says Melissa Raad, director of Children First. “We spent time wondering what was next and doing a lot of research.”
Spearfish’s ministry serves 76 children, employing 20 staff, by providing childcare for infants through children age five and a preschool. During the COVID-19 shutdown, families struggled to find care for children.
Children First struggled financially and emotionally. The organization turned to the leadership of their board for the next steps.
“Because of the Payroll Protection Program and the support of our board, we were able to pay employees during the shutdown and begin to plan for safe ways to open our doors,” says Raad.
Children returned to the building on June 15 with safety protocols in place, including setting up pods or specific groups partitioned away from other groups in a classroom, assigning teachers to stay in one classroom or the same classroom throughout the day, setting up a schedule that allows children to be outside at separate times or in different place, and limiting the adults that enter the classrooms, including parents— who drop off and pick up their children at the entrance area.
“We spent a lot of time during our time off, exploring and researching what we could do to be safe,” says Sarah Hazledine, preschool teacher and childcare supervisor at Children First. “There are a ton of resources and a lot to sift through. Every day we are learning something new and making changes.”
Children First’s goal is the same since it opened the doors 12 years ago: To provide a secure and loving environment for all children, promote total learning through all the senses, and support the individual development of every child.
In 2007, Spearfish United Methodist Church purchased a former elementary school to the south of the current church building. Rev. Grace Huck, a member of the congregation, encouraged creating an outreach center for the community.
“The idea was to demolish the building and make a parking lot. But Grace had other ideas. She encouraged the congregation to dream big about serving the community of Spearfish,” says Rev. Scott McKirdy, who serves at Spearfish UMC.
A small group of church members presented the idea to open a preschool and childcare center. The church moved forward with the concept with a volunteer director, Laura Lloyd-Smith. She wrote grants, obtained a childcare license from the state of South Dakota. The congregation, under the guidance of the Staff-Parish Relations Committee, hired staff and prepared the classrooms.
In June of 2008, Children First opened its doors, fully licensed to care for children ages four months to five years. The childcare program started with an enrollment of 26 children and five staff members. The need for quality childcare in Spearfish created demand. By September, the total enrollment was 73 children with 12 staff.
The childcare center and preschool have three certified Montessori teachers. There is an infant room, a toddler room, a 3-year-old preschool, two four and five-year-old preschool classrooms, and afternoon childcare for ages three through five.
The Children First volunteer board, mostly members of Spearfish UMC, is very active in Children First. Members provide guidance, research solutions, volunteer to help, and give moral support to the staff.
“The board members have been there since we opened the doors helping in whatever way they can. They fill in the gaps by helping us figure out the finances, doing research, and volunteering,” says Raad. “We have not been able to see them during COVID, but they have been very supportive.”
Spearfish UMC, the building owner, is dreaming about what the future might look like as things evolve at Children First.
“We have had an agency that leased some rooms in the upstairs of the building leave. We are beginning to dream about the possibility of expansion for Children First,” says Pastor Scott.
Whatever the future holds, Raad states that she is grateful for Spearfish UMC’s vision and passion.
“COVID has been tough on Children First. We are blessed to have a wonderful group of employees, supportive parents, and a board of incredible directors.”
Children First and Spearfish United Methodist Church are past recipeints of a Breakthrough Ministry Grants to expand the church partnership by hosting activities (Pre-COVID) including: mac and cheese day, donuts with dads, muffins with moms. Books were selected to give to each child at Children First.
Are you interested in launching a new ministry or expanding a current ministry? Apply for a Breakthrough Ministry Grant. The next grant application deadline is January 31. Get the application and instructions here. For questions about the application process, contact Diane Weller in the Foundation office.