First Impressions: An oasis in a child care desert

First Impressions is designed to serve as an informational hub for the families of Routt County who are seeking early childhood educational opportunities and adequate child care services.
Courtesy photo

Meaghan Franges, program leader for First Impressions, is passionate about early childhood education and child care, and wants Routt County “to know that we exist.”

First Impressions is an offshoot of the Colorado Department of Human Services and is designed to serve as an informational hub for Routt County families seeking early childhood educational opportunities and adequate child care services. Formed in 1997 after extensive community conversation and formal needs assessments, First Impressions works to ensure that children birth-8 will be provided adequate resources and quality programs to promote healthy development and school readiness.

According to Franges, First Impressions “wants to be the hub … we are the front door.” And indeed, the services offered by First Impressions are extensive. When looking for a child care provider, First Impressions may be the first contact for families. Furthermore, individuals who are considering opening a child care center can look to First Impressions for support, guidance and financial assistance. Scholarships are available for individuals who want to become a licensed child care provider.

Finding adequate child care has long been a problem in Routt County, said Franges, and the problem has only accelerated after the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, there were 30 family child care home providers in Routt County. That number has fallen to eight. Many factors have contributed to this situation including housing costs, difficulties navigating the licensure process and simply not knowing that an organization exists that can help assist families in need.

First Impressions works to identify barriers that are inherent in preventing the creation of new child care facilities and how those can be mitigated. Knowing that 77% of Routt County families with children under six have both parents in the workforce, the organization advocates for family-friendly workplace policies and the need to expand employee child care options in the community.

Recruiting and retaining a high-quality early childhood workforce is also a priority of First Impressions. Encouraging early childhood education as a viable career option, as well as promoting increased compensation/benefits for workers in the field are central to the work of the organization. First Impressions can provide information, direction and financial resources to individuals and organizations seeking to expand Routt County child care options.

Providing information to families seeking financial assistance for child care and raising awareness of this option is central to the work of First Impressions. Two options are available to qualifying families — the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program and the First Impressions Tuition Assistance Program.

CCCAP provides assistance to families who are working, in school or looking for work and earning up to 265% of the federal poverty level ($5,543 gross monthly income for a family of four). First Impressions can help individuals determine eligibility and assist in the application process through the Department of Human Services.

For those who do not qualify for CCCAP, First Impressions offers tuition assistance through its own program to help offset the costs. Eligible children must be enrolled or eligible for enrollment in a participating, licensed child care center, family child care home or preschool program in Routt County. Tuition Assistance is paid directly to the participating child care center/provider on behalf of approved families. First Impressions Tuition Assistance is limited to working families earning up to 400% of the federal poverty level (gross monthly income for a family of four).

Serving as a liaison between the community and child care providers is central to the mission of First Impressions. Providing translations services, First Impressions can assist bilingual families in navigating the Routt County child care maze. Providing financial assistance for families is also an integral part of First Impressions’ work.

The implementation of Universal Preschool has added to the responsibilities of First Impressions. Serving as a resource, First Impressions can assist families in choosing the right setting for their child, whether it is in a licensed community-based, school-based or home-based preschool. Families of children in the year before they are eligible for kindergarten, and qualifying 3-year-olds, can apply for UPK Colorado for the 2023-24 school year with the assistance of First Impressions.

“UPK has been very positive for our communities as a whole. It has been a huge win,” said Franges. Positive relationships with UPK providers have produced improved educational opportunities for Routt County children. Franges also is optimistic about increased UPK funding provided by recent passage of ballot initiative 2ii.

First Impressions is wholly dependent on grant funding to sustain its operations. This is, according to Franges, the biggest challenge facing the organization — along with increasing awareness that it exists to assist families in seeking child care and early childhood learning opportunities. Governed by an early childhood council, Franges says First Impressions is always looking for new members to serve and spread the word of the opportunities available.

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