MyVyllage: Missoula start-up mentors new child care businesses, connects families

Erica Mackey and her daughter Izzy, who was the inspiration for Mackey’s start-up business, MyVyllage. (Justine Jane Photography)

Cori Burns is one of many Missoula moms who struggle to find quality child care.

However, a new company that launched in Bozeman and Missoula last week is trying to create a better platform for both parents and caregivers when it comes to child care.

MyVyllage is a start-up firm that provides tools for new child care providers to develop their businesses while also providing a way for parents to find local, affordable, available options for their children.

Both of Burns’ children have attended child care centers in Missoula.

As an infant, her now 7-year-old son had medical issues that required constant monitoring. Burns found it was difficult for many providers to administer the medication he needed.

Years later, Burns and her husband adopted a three-month-old baby girl, and again struggled to find quality child care without being on a wait list for one to two years.

Many families enroll their child in a program before the baby is even conceived.

“The hardest is infant care,” Burns said. “Finding somewhere that’s affordable but also doesn’t feel like you’re taking them to some sort of factory where there are too many kids and not enough [employees].”

Burns’ daughter is enrolled at Missoula Baby School, but will age out of the program this August. Fortunately, she has found a facility with open spots for 2-year-olds. Others aren’t as lucky, and when they do find care it’s often expensive.

According to the Montana Budget and Policy Center, the average cost to enroll a 4-year-old in full-time care is $7,900 a year, or $660 a month. The cost of infant care is even higher, averaging over $9,000 annually.

For many families, child care is the largest expense they face, comprising half of their annual earnings. For single parents, the expense can be overwhelming.

MyVyllage co-founder and CEO Erica Mackey said her company helps early childhood care and education providers who are already established as well as those who are just starting their own child care facility.

Experienced providers act as mentors to new providers, she said. Development has already started in Missoula, Bozeman and in Colorado.

MyVyllage focuses on in-home care with small group sizes that usually fall into a 4:1 ratio for infants and toddlers, and a 6:1 ratio for ages 2 to 5.

MyVyllage will pair parents with an individualized program that adheres to their child’s wants and needs based on the latest childhood development research.

For example, if parents are looking for a provider with a background in music or a program that is nature- or outdoor-based, they can better locate it through the MyVyllage network.

MyVyllage focuses on care for children ages 0 to 5, making it easier for families to find preschool options and educational programs. Montana is still without a public preschool system, so many parents must find ways to nurture and extend their child’s early learning.

Since the company is new, finding providers and getting their businesses set up to start taking children will take some time, Mackey said, who hopes to develop 20 businesses in Montana by the middle of the summer and 50 to 70 by the end of this year.

Right now, there is a gap between supply and demand in quality child care facilities, and she hopes MyVyllage will help close that gap.

“There is way more demand for quality spots than there are quality spots available,” Mackey said.

Kelly Rosenleaf, executive director of Child Care Resources in Missoula, said there are 122 licensed child care facilities in Missoula County, mostly in the urban area. There are no licensed facilities in Seeley Lake, Potomac or Alberton.

While there is no local database, state figures show a downward trend in the number of child care providers. National numbers show the same decline.

In Region 2, which includes Missoula, Mineral and Ravalli counties, licensed child care centers have dropped from 172 in 2015 to 157 in 2018.

Statewide statistics show a drop from 962 licensed child cares in 2015 to 911 in 2018.

“This illustrates a downward trend that has been occurring for 15 years, not just in Missoula, or Montana,” Rosenleaf said. “It’s a national trend.

“While we have lost centers in Missoula and in Montana, we have lost far more home child care businesses. Home-based child care may be something a person does for 3 to 10 years; very few do it more than 10 years. So the fact that they close is not so surprising.”

“What has changed,” Rosenleaf said. “is that people are not starting home-based child care businesses in the numbers necessary to replace those that close.  This limits parent choice and certainly contributes to the shortage.”

MyVyllage wants to help stabilize numbers by helping new facilities conduct background checks and home inspections. The company’s experts will have personal conversations with new providers about what they hope to achieve in their programs.

Parents looking for facilities can visit the website and read about providers, what they offer, what they cost and read reviews from other families.

People who are interested in starting a business can apply on their website.

Erica Mackey, left, and Elizabeth Szymanski recently launched MyVyllage. (Justine Jane Photography)

For Mackey, the idea stemmed from her own experiences with finding care for her 2-year-old when she moved to Missoula after living in Africa for eight years developing a solar energy system for rural communities.

“It was the first time for me that I really spent time navigating through child care, and I was a working mom on the road a lot and had a unique opportunity to experience child care through the lens of a lot of different cultures,” Mackey said. “What was really interesting was how challenging it was everywhere I went. It didn’t really seem like anybody had a solid system figured out.”

MyVyllage is trying to tackle three issues, Mackey said: affordability, availability and quality.

“If you didn’t get on a wait list before you started thinking about conceiving, you had to compromise in at least one of those areas,” she said. “For me, what got me very motivated and also incredibly angry is how much those compromises existed, particularly as you are moving to lower and lower income families.”

MyVyllage assists new educators by using a “business in a box” model of running a facility. This includes licensing, finance and connecting the owner with discounts for materials that facilities need like insurance and bulk purchasing.

These discounts may help drive down costs for both providers and for parents, Mackey said.

Missoula MyVyllage mentor Michelle Burton owns Missoula Baby School and is currently helping a few new providers develop their facilities. She has experienced her own troubles running a child care facility in her own home for the past three years.

Burton, who only cares for infants and toddlers, said that she barely makes a living wage, even when parents are charged around $800 a month for care. Legally, providers who care for children aged 0 to 2, can only have four children at one time, resulting in a wait list. Many providers who can’t make ends meet are forced to close their facilities.

“I’ve lost people because they can’t afford it, but also I’m barely making a living wage,” she said. “That’s an obstacle for families and it’s an obstacle for providers because I support my kids and I completely, 100 percent. So just trying to support them and still charge something that parents can afford, I mean, they’re paying more than a mortgage in a normal town on a monthly basis.”

As a mentor, she aids providers with start-up routines and supplies advice and connections to health care experts and others. In turn, she makes an additional wage doing so through MyVyllage, which she hopes can help with operating costs.

Many caregivers – including Burton – feel isolated, not knowing how to improve their quality of care without some sort of backing.

Mackey wants to make child care more professional, allowing providers to be promoted to mentor status.

With this business structure and support, Burton hopes more people will be attracted to the idea of being a caregiver, allowing for more facilities in which families can enroll their children.

“A lot of providers go into early childhood education because they love kids, not because they know how to do books and budget,” Burton said. “I think that’s an area of weakness for providers.”

At Child Care Resources, Rosenleaf said having a company that was started by business entrepreneurs who have experience solving big-system problems may help Missoula’s child care shortage.

“We want to help new providers, too, but if [MyVyllage has] other services and resources we can’t bring to the table, we would want to connect them,” she said. “We are desperate to recruit new facilities.”

State programs such as STARS to Quality and the Best Beginnings Scholarship program have helped parents make more informed decisions when choosing care, while also providing funds for families to pay for care.

STARS to Quality is a rating system that measures quality of early childhood education, while Best Beginnings scholarships pay child care providers who serve some low-income families.

While these are great steps to improving the number and quality of care facilities in Montana, companies like MyVyllage and organizations like Child Care Resources working together may help solve this decades-long issue.

“Everyone I have encountered for the most part in Montana has a very DIY, entrepreneurial focus, and I think that very much aligns with us and our values as a company,” Mackey said. “It’s also what’s going to be required for somebody to take the leap to start a business in their own home.”

Mari Hall is a 2018 graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism and a summer intern at Missoula Current.