Serendipity Children’s Center

July 23, 2021 update: The Thurston EDC awarded Economic Courage Awards at the Hootenanny on Thursday, July 22. Learn more here:

The childcare sector is a critical underpinning of our economy – local, regional, and state. In fact, many would argue that childcare and early learning systems are the underpinnings of our economy.  It provides the safe and secure element that families rely upon to confidently participate in not just a career and or workforce, but the operations of a community.  100% of our collective future resides in the system that we all create for taking care of our families and youth.

During the past decade, the childcare system has become much more fractured in the ability to operate as a business.  For any number of well-documented reasons, it has become problematic for childcare businesses to operate – both financially as well as regulatory.  Thurston County is blessed to have quality daycare providers such as Serendipity Children’s Center. They provide a safe, nurturing and educational environment so that families are confident to entrust their children for an hour, a half-day, or a full day as they pursue employment.  This is the underpinning of our region’s economy.  If there was not trusted childcare, families could not pursue employment – and thus a downward negative impact upon the entire community.

As the pandemic becomes a reality locally, and the state and nation endured quarantine and or socially distancing requirements, daycare operators struggled with the reality of providing quality care while observing all of the requirements to ensure a safe and healthy environment. And as the economy slowly opened up, they were one of the first sectors to open and provide that critical service so that families could get back to work.  But the reality of the effort was, and the untold element of that effort was to put themselves at risk to provide that absolutely necessary service. The fiscal model was further stressed – the social distancing guidelines requiring fuller staffing, and fewer “clients.” Childcare providers found themselves in an untenable situation.

Serendipity chose a long-term solution. They chose to continue to operate – and fully within the guidelines and provided an environment in which parents could feel confident entrusting their children.  They sought to institute creative solutions to ensure healthy and safe operations; they empowered their staff to develop solutions that met the guidelines, and they sought the long-game of providing their service to the community – with the knowledge that their financial health could be at risk.

The Thurston Economic Development Council is pleased to have nominated Serendipity Children’s Center for an Economic Courage Award. We recently interviewed owner Lynnette McCarty to learn more about her experience during COVID-19. Enjoy the conversation below!

EDC: What was your biggest challenge during COVID, and how did you solve it?
LM: My biggest challenge this year was making decisions without any historical data to assist me. For example, should we close? Should we open? What risks am I facing as a business owner, and what risks am I asking my staff to take? How do I resolve the ask, ”when there is a lockdown, why would I stay open?”
This challenge caused so much anxiety for me because I was making decisions about others while keeping in mind that the essential workers needed childcare to keep going to work. Ultimately, with my team, we chose to stay open despite the “fears” involved. With that came some employees who did not want to work out of fear, parents dropping out of care due to fear, and after the fallout, I dealt with the financial losses. There has been no rule book. There have been no real answers. My decision was overall the desire to serve our community and stay in business with quality. It has been a year of problem-solving for sure!
To solve our lack of historical data – my team decided to look at each decision one decision at a time. Jumping ahead and trying to analyze the unknown did not make sense. We chose to take each day and make the best of it. We worked as a team, listened to one another, and confidently made the best decision. Overall, I think we did a great job!
EDC: What was the biggest change in your business, and how did you respond to it?

LM: The biggest change in my business included daily problem solving and staying flexible to maintain the business. We did what was necessary to uphold quality for those we were serving. We were grateful for the community support and applied for the  PPP Loans. Without this help, I am certain we would have had to close our doors. We have had to negotiate increased costs in all areas of our business. We have had to spend more on safety items such as gloves etc., and we have worked hard to keep a steady staff working. For many, staying home due to “fear” of the virus has kept us hiring new employees willing to take the risk. We made decisions as needed to give hazard pay and balance the weight of fear and risks of unknowns.   Turnover in my business has always been there, but minimal. This year, we have had to deal with this on a more regular basis. Onboarding takes time, and it takes patience, money and work.

For a long time, my business has done regular long-term and short-term planning. Implementation has been like clockwork.  Now…we cannot plan long term. We have to be prepared for change within the hour. A positive COVID test could lead to possible closure, and then after that come the financial obstacles as a result. From the beginning, I decided that as long as I had money in the bank, I would move forward. Once I had no choice, then and only then would I make a different decision.

I am not sure I have really solved the need to stay flexible…we continue to be flexible, diligent in our health and safety standards, and keep the children happy and loved. We have encouraged all of our staff to get immunized, and even with their fear, there is the fear of the vaccine as well. I believe we will still live with this for some time, and that unknown keeps us “flexible” for now. As we have handled things as they come, we have found that things have tended to work out, which has mitigated some of the stress.

EDC: Will these changes be permanent, or will things go back to the way they were pre-COVID?

LM: The changes in flexibility will not change. We will never go back to “the way things were,” in my opinion. People have made different choices for their families and, as a result, are making different decisions about childcare. Some need it more than ever. Some have learned to live differently without it. COVID has created a new way of thinking for many, and although I have had to adjust in my business, I believe some of the changes are not bad.  I don’t think it hurts to check people’s temps on the way in.  I don’t think it hurts to do an extra dose of sanitizing.  As an industry, we have been used to cleaning, sanitizing, and being careful to protect our children. The added layer isn’t a bad thing. It makes us more aware…it potentially keeps our center well!

I think I have had a couple of things that have helped me. First, I have always been a change agent. That has been a positive quality that has helped me through this pandemic. I am not fearful of change, and I believe that it is in change that we grow, that we get better and that we move toward a better life. I am not sure if we are done yet…there is surely more change on the horizon, and until things settle down more, I am not sure we will see the full impact of this pandemic and how it will or won’t change the world. My little business is a part of the world, and childcare is necessary for many.  The thing I fear most is the “added costs” associated with childcare.  I have seen some grocery items go up 20%.  I have seen gloves double in price. I have had to raise my wages to be competitive. When will the cost of doing business settle down?  When will the minimum wage slow down?  All this does is create a ripple effect that creates higher costs for everything. I have been in business for over 30 years, and this year has been the most difficult of any of my previous years in business.

EDC: What is the biggest thing you learned last year as it relates to your business?

LM: I think the biggest thing that I have learned is that my business is a “need.” Parents have to work. Kids need stability and routine. The need outweighed the risk, and my pride for the leadership team that runs my business is committed to a passion for children.  Additionally, those employees who stayed through it all have, for the most part, remained healthy. Knowing  I might drop in revenues for a short time was a risk I was willing to take for the greater good.  Some centers were not as lucky, or not as mature, maybe…but with my longevity in the business and the knowledge on how to run a business, I have a combination that has allowed me to stay strong. As centers do close, the need will arise, and we will be short of what we need to serve the communities of our nation. I  have also been reminded over and over again that we need good childcare.

I have known for a long time that childcare is getting even more expensive, and as a result, it prohibits some from finding care. What I have learned is that it is not an easy pathway to solve these problems. I believe that all children deserve quality care and that childcare keeps people working.  At what point is the cost of childcare… going to cause people to be unable to work… At what point is enough?  Raising my rates is the most difficult decision annually. Still, with minimum wage edging toward $15 per hour and the need for proper benefits to be competitive, I have no choice but raise rates to keep quality staff.  I have learned that I have to charge what I need to run my business…and if there is fallout, I have no choice.

I had learned that Serendipity has loyal parents who had chosen to pay even when they stayed home to preserve staffing.  I have learned about generosity and goodwill in my community. I have been reminded again and again that children need routine, and they love school! I have been humbled as I have applied for grants and received them. I have learned that our community cares!

I have known that I have a stellar leadership team and staff! What I learned was to not take that for granted! I try to thank them regularly and create a harmonious atmosphere at work that makes them know their value!   I have learned that our children are loved and recognized as little people needing attention and quality care while their parents are at work. I have learned that Childcare is an important part of the fabric of our community, and it has been comforting that the community has noticed that. I have watched our industry be overlooked and underfunded for a very long time. Why has it taken so long to be noticed?  I have really learned that the community wants to help. I have seen task forces created to try to gain a better understanding of the issues surrounding childcare and try to solve some of the problems. When it comes down to it, many problems are related to the costs, so money is the issue. I have always known that the money part of things is tough; I have learned that has not changed!

EDC: Why did you take the “at-risk” activities?

LM: We took the “at-risk” activities because someone had to. To close our doors meant that those willing and needing to work to make sure we were being provided with healthcare, groceries, deliveries etc. and would have a place for their kids.  We took the risk because I felt that we could manage a way…As a business owner, I  took a risk because I believe in our community, and I wanted to be that person who “stepped up!” I took the risk because I felt I had a team that could carry what we needed to provide the care.

Thank you for the opportunity to share my experience with you. We have to teach and encourage people to open new childcare facilities. We need to keep this industry alive. More and more, the corporate centers are taking over, and the smaller centers are losing their ground. More and more people choose not to open due to the amount of money and work it takes to open a childcare facility. Let’s continue to work together for the greater good and keep our industry strong!