Daycare options are shrinking in Middlebury


THE SUNSHINE CHILDREN’S Center in Middlebury will close later this year after its home at 13 Washington St. Ext. is sold. Sunshine owner-Director Deedee Fleming plans to open a smaller child care operation in her Addison home, but the county will see a net loss of slots at a time when child care is in high demand. Independent photo/William Haig
I’m not even open yet, and I have 13 infants on my wait list. I’m getting calls daily for children under two. — Deedee Fleming

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury’s Sunshine Children’s Center will close later this year, a development that’s bound to create new challenges for local parents already struggling to find quality care and early education options for young kids in Addison County’s shire town.

Deedee Fleming, owner-director of the Sunshine center, confirmed her family is selling the sprawling, 3,618-square-foot Victorian home at 13 Washington St. Extension in which the center is based. IPJ Real Estate is currently listing the property at $545,000.

Sunshine is approved for 24 slots for kids ages 3 to 5, though Fleming likes to keep total enrollment at around 20. And while she’s leaving Middlebury, Fleming and one of her current employees will transition to a new, 12-slot service that will be established in Fleming’s home off Jersey Street South in the town of Addison. Four of those slots will be for infants, she told the Independent.

“I’m excited for new adventures, but it still makes me tear up when I talk about it,” Fleming said of her impending Middlebury departure.

“This has been my life for over 30 years,” she said. “It was a really hard decision.”

Sunshine opened in 1988 under Bonnie Laframboise. Fleming joined the center that same year, while still in high school. She took a break to attend college, but rejoined Sunshine upon graduation and has been there ever since.

Deedee Fleming and her husband acquired the building in 2002, then bought the center itself in 2006.

Large, older homes need constant maintenance, and that takes regular infusions of money. With homes selling like hotcakes right now, the Flemings knew it was a good time to put the center property on the market.

An exact closure date for Sunshine is largely dependent on when 13 Washington St. Ext. sells.

“My hope — so that it affects the least number of families — is to be here (in Middlebury) until mid-August,” Fleming said. “That’s when my 5-year-olds graduate and head off to kindergarten. So (the center relocation) wouldn’t affect half my group. The younger groups have either found new placements, or will be following me (to Addison).”

Sunshine has been serving 16-18 children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fleming has never had a problem filling slots, and she’s already filled the 12 spaces she’ll carry in Addison.

“We are losing a few of our preschool spots, but at least I will still be caring for children and opening up some infant spots,” she said. “I’m not even open yet, and I have 13 infants on my wait list. I’m getting calls daily for children under two (years old), basically.”

NEED FOR CHILD CARE

Ginny Sinclair is referral specialist with Mary Johnson Children’s Center. She said she gets around 150 calls each year from families looking for child care, with more than one-third of those callers specifically seeking care for kids age six weeks to just under three years old.

Sinclair explained the need is particularly acute for the youngest children because state rules place strict limits on the number of infants that can be accommodated at centers and home-based providers.

Sunshine currently operates with Fleming and her staff of three. One of her current employees will follow her to Addison; the other two are in job-search mode, according to Fleming.

While disappointed, affected families have been supportive of Sunshine’s impending migration to Addison.

“I had one person say, ‘My two older children graduated from Sunshine and I was hoping my youngest could, too,’” Fleming said.

But ultimately, she has to do what’s right for herself and her family, who have invested plenty of resources, time and effort into making Sunshine a valuable part of the Middlebury-area’s child care network.

“It was time for me to simplify things in my life,” she said. “Thirty years is a long stretch to put in here, and it was time to downsize a little bit, I guess.”

It might be a long shot, but Fleming believes it would be ideal if the future owner of 13 Washington St. Ext. chooses to maintain the property as a child care center. Donna Bailey, director of the Addison County Parent/Child Center, acknowledged she had a “moment of panic” when she first heard Sunshine would be leaving, and even toyed with the idea of trying to raise the capital to buy the property.

“I quickly talked myself out of it,” she said, noting the purchase price and ongoing maintenance costs for an older building that must be treated with tender loving care.

But Bailey said more needs to be done to preserve and build upon child care services in Vermont.

“I see home care providers closing more than new ones opening up,” she said. “It’s a pretty desperate situation, and Addison County is in better shape than most (other Vermont counties).”

Jane Reilly, financial assistance program specialist with the Mary Johnson, validated Bailey’s concern.

She noted there were 90 home-based child care providers when she joined Mary Johnson in 1998.

There are now 30, to go along with 17 licensed child care centers.

Reilly noted some providers have aged out of the system, while others have moved on to other jobs.

“It’s hard work for not a lot of pay,” she said of those working in child care.

Reilly applauded the 2021 Legislature for passing bill H.171, which includes more than $8 million to boost child care subsidies and help cover educational expenses of child care employees. But she stressed the industry also needs more infrastructure to house programming.

“I can tell you you’re eligible for a child care subsidy, but then there’s no child care available for you,” she said of the current irony.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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Addison County Independent