Bridgewater child care center born, and growing

By NORA DOYLE-BURR

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 07-09-2022 9:46 PM

BRIDGEWATER — There was a time when the effort to save the former Bridgewater Village School building and the effort to construct a new town fire station appeared to be at odds.

Initially, Bridgewater voters decided at a Special Town Meeting in 2016 to raze the former school at least in part to make way for the new fire station. But the community overcame that initial friction and, in 2018, the newly formed nonprofit Bridgewater Area Community Foundation struck a deal with the Selectboard to lease the former school building, first constructed in 1914, for a dollar a year.

Now the building has found new life and the fire station has opened its doors.

The Bridgewater Community Childcare center, housed in the newest part of the former school, began welcoming its first eight children in the middle of June. Next summer, other parts of the building are expected to open as another classroom for the child care center and as a community center slated to host town meetings and other activities.

And, later this month, the Bridgewater Volunteer Fire Department is holding an open house and tour of its new fire and rescue building, which sits next to the community center on Southgate Loop off Route 4 in the center of town. The town offices also are next door.

Together, the new and renovated buildings help to form a “new heart to the village,” said Charles Shackleton, a member of the community foundation’s board. Shackleton co-owns ShackletonThomas, a furniture maker located in an old mill building that sits across Route 4 from the community center and fire station.

“Bridgewater, we feel, is undergoing a bit of a revival,” Shackleton said. “Between the community center and the fire station, it’s brought a lot of the community together.”

In order to get to this point, the foundation has spent about half of the $1.5 million it has raised for renovations, Shackleton said.

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But money is only part of the effort it’s taken to get the child care center going. The group had aimed to open it in early 2020 but encountered numerous challenges along the way. The project lost a key advocate when Bridgewater resident Hank Smith died in 2020. It took the foundation board a while to find a director for the center. Permitting has been challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic. And the child care industry, long struggling to match what families can pay with what staff need to earn, has been hit hard by the pandemic.

Brenda Metzler, a Bridgewater resident and community and program support specialist at the statewide nonprofit advocacy organization Let’s Grow Kids, is among those celebrating the center’s opening.

When she learned that the center had gotten its license, she said, “I started to cry. I felt like I birthed a child.”

Metzler has been advising the board for about four years on issues such as fire safety, permitting and licensing questions, and ways of matching the Bridgewater child care program to the community’s needs. Before the center opened, there were no licensed spots for babies or toddlers in town, Metzler said. In the surrounding towns, there were fewer than a dozen when Metzler began helping the foundation.

“I, as a member of this town, voted to tear this building down; now I am committing to helping you save it,” she said she told the foundation board when she joined the effort. As an early childhood education program, “I am 100% behind that. I support you.”

“One of my roles has been bridge-building,” Metzler said.

“We don’t have to fight about it. We all need both,” she said of the child care center and fire station.

Devyn Workman, of Hartland, also is among those celebrating the new child care center.

“I’m really excited about the center,” he said. It’s “the first place to finally have a spot for my daughter. We’re on waiting lists everywhere … up to 45 minutes away.”

Workman’s 13-month-old daughter, Quilla, is among the first children to attend the center. Workman said he and his wife, Nora, first began looking for child care for Quilla when Nora, a midwife at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, was eight weeks pregnant.

For about a year without formal child care, it’s been a scramble.

“We have been piecing it together,” said Workman, a special educator in the Windsor Central Supervisory Union.

His mom and his mother-in-law have both been helping out, and Nora has been working weekends in order to have weekdays off.

But having full-time child care for the past few weeks “has been a huge big shift,” he said.

Workman noted that even if the Bridgewater center hadn’t been the first to offer the family a spot, they would still be happy with it. In fact, shortly after they were offered the Bridgewater spot, they got a call from another center and visited. They chose Bridgewater.

“The first and foremost was, holy cow, somebody has a place for us,” Workman said. “Luckily, it’s actually been super lovely.”

Shackleton’s grandson, James, who will turn 2 in August, also is among the first children to attend the new child care center. James’ parents are furniture makers who work in the old mill building.

“He’s very happy,” Shackleton said. “Everyone’s doing a great job.”

The center is currently licensed for 14 children, ages 6 weeks to 36 months, Kristiana Birmingham, the center’s program director, said. It is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The cost to families is $65 per day, but state subsidies and scholarships are available to those who qualify. By next summer, the facility is slated to include a second classroom and be able to serve a total of 36 children.

The “soft opening” for the eight children allows Birmingham and two employees to provide care for some children, while they continue to look for more employees. The center has a waiting list of about 30 families, she said.

Birmingham, who previously ran the afterschool program for the Windsor Central Supervisory Union, joined the Bridgewater child care center last October.

Getting to this point “has definitely been an uphill battle,” said Birmingham, a 29-year-old who grew up in Woodstock and went away to college before returning to the area.

Staffing shortages at the state level slowed down the licensing process, she said.

Board members volunteered their time to build the classroom and the playground, installing fences and kitchenettes, she said.

“They’ve done everything,” she said.

Still hurdles remain, including adding more employees, Birmingham said.

“The staffing shortage right now in this field makes it a bit scary,” she said. “As a director, my main priority is the safety.”

To reassure parents, the center uses an online app to communicate details with parents about their child’s day, such as timing and number of diaper changes, what they’ve eaten and length of their naps. Birmingham also has had an open-door policy for parents, inviting them to join the children for lunchtime, for example.

Doing so, “helps build this little community,” Birmingham said.

Workman seemed to agree. Though Quilla has cried at times as she adjusts to the separation from her familial caregivers, he said the social aspect of the center has been good for her and for him.

After dropping off Quilla, Workman said he’s “found myself stuck in the parking lot.”

The Workmans are “expanding our community,” which he said he hopes may lead to “some future play dates.”

Meanwhile, the nearby Bridgewater Volunteer Fire Department is celebrating its own expansion.

“It means a lot,” Bruce Maxham, the department’s assistant chief, said of the opening of the new station, which was primarily funded through a $1.8 million town bond. “I think some of us have been working on this for about five years now.”

The new approximately 7,000-square-foot station sits across Route 4 from the old one, which was first built in the 1950s. The old station, which had cracks in the cinder block walls, was too small for modern equipment, Maxham said. The last time the department purchased a new truck it had to find one that would fit the space, not necessarily the department’s needs, he said.

In addition to having more room for equipment, the new station also has a small break room, as well as a bathroom and showers, and a refrigerator. It has space for firefighters to store their gear, instead of carrying it around in their individual cars, as well as a special washer and dryer for cleaning the gear in case it gets contaminated on a call. At the old station, they used a regular washing machine and laid out the gear to dry in a meeting room.

“We don’t have a lot of extra space, but we have adequate space,” Maxham said of the new station. “It’s more user-friendly.”

One of Maxham’s hopes is that the new building will attract new members to the department’s current roster of about 20.

“We’re always looking for new members,” he said.

Maxham acknowledged that “originally, not everyone was on the same page with where we should go” with the former school building and fire station, but “for the most part, everyone has come to accept” the situation. And, he said, they “hope both organizations succeed.”

The fire department has invited community members to an open house at its new building, located at 28 Southgate Loop, from 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. this Saturday. A tour of the facility, as well as hamburgers and hot dogs, will be provided.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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