Two new programs — one made possible by a federal grant and the other from gifts from the Lincoln Community Foundation — will expand childcare in Lincoln, especially to low-income families.

A new three-year grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement will help refugees start preschools and day care businesses — providing startup costs and training to help refugees learn about business startups as well as the state and local early childhood education rules and regulations.

A second initiative — thanks to gifts from the Lincoln Community Foundation — has allowed Dimensions Education Program to open a second preschool at 7700 A St., where 30 percent of its enrollment is dedicated to low-income families.

Michelle Suarez, who heads the early childhood education arm of Prosper Lincoln, said both programs help fulfill the goal of the community initiative.

Helping refugees

Midlands Latino Community Development Corp., an Omaha company that began to help Latinos start their own preschool and child care businesses and later expanded to other commercial enterprises, got the grant to expand its services to the refugee community.

The grant, $187,000 each of the next three years, will ultimately help refugee communities in Omaha, Bellevue and Lincoln, but will begin its work in the capital city, Suarez said.

“Really, it’s about entrepreneurship, following your passions, helping people find the means to do it,” Suarez said.

The grant will help people from the refugee community learn what it takes to start businesses — funding, insurance, marketing, developing a mission — along with teaching the rules and regulations required to become licensed day care providers.

“There’s a cultural proficiency part of this work,” Suarez said.

Lincoln has large Arabic- and Karen-speaking communities that may be able to take advantage of the opportunities, Suarez said.

Zainab Al-Baaj, the Middle Eastern/North African hope coordinator for the Good Neighbor Center in Lincoln, said she has previously worked with families to open home child care businesses and hopes this grant will allow them to work more in-depth with families starting businesses.

As more people from different cultures enter the workforce, having access to day cares or preschools run by those who know and understand their food, culture and religious practices is important. Al-Baaj said.

The grant will provide startup costs and training both in business practices and child care, but there will be a need for translators to help and for some transportation.

One of the challenges will be finding locations: The grant requires that the day cares be located in homes or businesses, not apartments, where many refugees live, at least initially.

Suarez said they may be able to work with families to create cooperatives so they can share commercial space, and they’ll be investigating ways to help prospective business owners to find homes.

Affordable childcare

The Lincoln Community Foundation and donor Mae Whitmer gave donations that allowed Dimensions, which has run a preschool program at First Plymouth Church for many years, to open a second program.

The foundation gave Dimensions its first “mission investment” — a second mortgage loan for the space.

A mission investment is money or loans provided from the community foundation’s endowments for projects that benefit the community, and the preschool program was a perfect fit, said Barb Bartles, president of the Lincoln Community Foundation.

A donation from Whitmer, whose husband was a third-generation owner of ABC Electric, allowed them to get more space and increase enrollment from about 80 to 150. The expanded space will be for babies and toddlers, and will be called the ABC room in honor of Whitmer, Bartles said.

Early childhood education is a passion of Whitmer, Bartle said, and she gave a second gift that will help pay tuition for low-income families, which will comprise 30 percent of the enrollment.

Suarez said that model — using community donations to help subsidize quality early childhood education to more low-income families — is a something Prosper Lincoln officials are working to expand.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.


Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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