BENNINGTON — Over a hundred people attended the unveiling of the Spring Center on Wednesday, a multiyear project that expands child care in town amid a rising need across the state.
The Spring Center, a $4.8 million extension to the Bennington Recreation Center on Gage Street, is the newest location for the Head Start and Early Head Start programs of United Children’s Services.
The facility, which opened in June, adds 64 more slots to the agency’s Bennington County child care programs, bringing the total to 170 slots. This includes its Infant and Toddler Center.
According to Let’s Grow Kids, a nonprofit advocacy group for affordable access to quality child care in the state, three out of five Vermont children lacked access to such care before the COVID-19 pandemic. The need has just become more pressing since the pandemic as some child care programs face staff shortages.
“The need for infant and preschool child care in Vermont is huge, and this facility will help meet the needs of families in your community,” Brooke Grams, from the office of U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, said during speeches that preceded the Spring Center’s ribbon cutting mid-afternoon Wednesday.
“Investing in early child care is important and pays back to families, communities and businesses,” she said.
Pollaidh Major, a representative of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office, acknowledged Head Start’s broad programming, which includes early education, family engagement and health services.
“When we look across the spectrum of federally funded childhood programs, Head Start really stands out as one that wraps its arms around the whole family,” she told an audience that included Bennington Select Board members and the area’s Vermont state representatives. “This is your tax dollars coming back here.”
The Spring Center, which broke ground in October 2019, is a joint project of United Children’s Services, its parent organization United Counseling Service and the town of Bennington.
Nearly the size of three high school basketball courts, the center features children’s rooms that welcome natural light, as well as numerous preschool-height hand-washing sinks.
Among the facility’s highlights is the Kids Learning Kitchen, which was designed to be used by preschoolers. Administrators said the kitchen enables students from all United Children’s Services child programs to participate in cooking activities hands-on.
In the hallway outside the classrooms, visitors will find the Great Wall. Planners envisioned the curved metal wall as “both art installation and interactive STEAM for students,” said United Counseling Service spokeswoman Heidi French, referring to a learning approach that integrates science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics.
Educators see the area as “an extension of the classroom,” she said.
For parents of students or staff members who are breastfeeding, the center offers a Nursing Moms Suite. The room includes a couch, a sink, as well as a mini refrigerator that can be used for storing breastmilk.
“It was important to us to provide a clean, comfortable space that supported parents’ feeding choices,” French said.
The Spring Center also allocates a space for community events, such as meetings and classes. Called the Great Room, it has a retractable wall that opens into the building lobby and features a speaker system, projector and screen.
It is adjacent to the Community Kitchen, a fully accessible facility that can be used for community fundraisers and cooking classes.
Jeannie Jenkins, head of the Bennington Select Board, told the Banner that the Spring Center is part of the town’s efforts to build a stronger sense of community and promote inclusion. Being located in downtown Bennington, she said the center allows more families to get access to quality child care.
The other Bennington County Head Start locations are in Manchester, North Bennington and Pownal.
Right outside the Spring Center, there’s a Trike Track for children who are building up their gross motor skills. It features traffic signs and a make-believe electric vehicle charging station. This tricycle loop and its nearby playground are open to members of the public on weekends and evenings, when classes are not in session.
One evening in early June, said facility manager Beth Wallace, she was reminded of the vision for the Spring Center when she looked out a classroom window and saw a mother and child together on the Trike Track.
“Mom was pushing her daughter in one of those learner trikes with the handle behind it, and her toddler was beaming with pride. And it hit me as I thought: ‘Ah, yes, this was the vision. This was the dream,’” Wallace, of United Children’s Services, said during the opening ceremony.
“This project was never just for the students in these classrooms. This project was for the neighborhood, for the community,” she added.
The facility is the brainchild of United Children’s Services Director Betsy Rathbun-Gunn, who proposed a public-private partnership with the town of Bennington in 2018, said United Counseling Service Director Lorna Mattern.
Administrators said the Spring Center’s construction also translated into jobs for various people around the state, including those providing products or services in cleaning, accessibility systems, cabinetry, landscaping, sprinkler systems, tiling, as well as windows and doors.