Leave it to a local excavating firm to take on DIY child care: What was once a restaurant is now a brightly lit space where kids come to learn and play, filled with crafts, toys and miniature chairs. D&G Excavating rehabbed the building and opened L’il Diggers Daycare in Lynd, near Marshall, in 2015. Sandie Polfliet is the full-time child care provider, alongside another part-time provider.
“We really are appreciative of Sandie and the work that she does with all of the children,” said Heather Willert, who manages L’il Diggers in addition to her work as D&G’s safety compliance director.
Sandie previously cared for kids as a home-based provider for 35 years and was familiar with the training — and patient, loving care — the job takes. L’il Diggers is proud to hold a four-star rating from Parent Aware, meaning it’s using best practices to prepare children for kindergarten.
“We as a society need to give child care providers a considerable amount of respect because they are doing such a huge service for parents and employers. They’re educating our children and setting them up to be ready for school,” Heather said. “Child care providers are definitely shaping and molding the future of our country. They’re not just babysitters.”
It wasn’t until Heather had her first child that she discovered how hard it was to find child care. That observation became an opportunity as she and D&G Excavating Manager Kristin Gruhot worked to open company-sponsored child care.
“One of the primary reasons we opened the day care is because the construction industry is facing a massive shortage of labor. We wanted to do something that set us apart from our competition,” Heather said. “We want to get more young people involved in the construction industry.”
Subsidized child care is available as a benefit to D&G’s 35 employees, with several of L’il Diggers’ 12 licensed spots open to the community as well. About half of the children enrolled have parents working at D&G. L’il Diggers is licensed as a special family child care, a category that includes child care run by a nonprofit, employer or church.
At first, Heather considered opening as a child care center, but the staffing requirements seemed like a burden. The special family child care license allows L’il Diggers to operate under regulations like a family-based child care.
“It’s been a big huge learning curve for myself because there are so very few. When we started, there wasn’t even an application for a special family day care. And there are some struggles in terms of a special family day care that you wouldn’t necessarily face as a home-based provider home,” Heather said.
It is also a struggle to balance the financials for L’il Diggers. A 2017 study by the Center for Rural Policy and Development found high start-up costs, low wages and challenging regulatory systems make child care a difficult business for family- and center-based providers in rural communities. Simply raising rates isn’t the answer: Most providers feel parents cannot afford to pay more.
“It’s tough making a go of any day care. It’s really tough to stay in the black even,” Heather said.
But overall, the model has been working well for D&G, helping match the open hours of child care with the busy season for excavating. Prior to opening L’il Diggers, it was hard for employees to find child care that remained open late enough for the long shifts required when the weather is favorable for outdoor work. Now, D&G employees don’t have to worry about their kids having quality, affordable care when they need it.
Heather is helping advance solutions for the child care crisis across the region. She served on a task force of 15 child care providers, educators, agencies and employers Southwest Initiative Foundation organized to help map the child care system in southwest Minnesota. Learn more about our work in rural child care.