It’s another weekday at Stepping Stones Learning Center in Valdez, and the excited chatter of children provides an uplifting backdrop to the pastel-colored walls and fresh snow falling outside the window. Toddlers crawl on plastic play slides, and two boys play construction, wearing helmets and safety vests. One industrious little girl builds a tall Lego tower only to topple it in glee. In the infant room, soft music plays as the little ones sleep.
“They love doing everything,” said Lisandra Diaz-Rivera, executive director at the center, of the 30-plus children who attend. “They like running around, and they like playing. They are very loving and get very attached to their teachers.”
Stepping Stones plays a vital role in the Valdez community. The nonprofit daycare and learning center is the only state-licensed facility there, filling a need for parents and guardians who need childcare assistance. In partnership with Providence Alaska Foundation, Providence Health & Services Alaska invested $49,500 in community partnership funding to help Stepping Stones with facility upgrades.
“The original daycare shut down in 2017, and then a group of moms went nonprofit,” said Kristina Roche, Stepping Stones’ board vice president. After discovering mold in the original facility, the center moved to a church, which reduced capacity from 60 to just 12 children. Then they found a larger location, but it, too, was only temporary.
“Through the years, there has been a great need for childcare, but not very consistent availability in providing that,” Roche added.
In 2020, and despite a worldwide pandemic, Stepping Stones was able to launch its newly renovated childcare center, back in its original location and with the capacity to care for up to 60 children from ages newborn, with an afterschool program for children up to age 12. With Providence funding, the nonprofit group completely rehabilitated the property, replacing damaged drywall, installing new flooring and carpeting, and painting the facility with cheerful colors like turquoise, blue, periwinkle and red.
Each room has a purpose: In one, the children can work on arts and crafts, while in another they might run and jump or climb on the play equipment. Educational toys and building blocks fill another room, and, of course, there are books – lots and lots of books.
“We have a diversity of parents who have different needs, and we try to meet them all,” Diaz-Rivera said. “The kids have fun, too. They get to go outside, they have snacks. We provide learning through play, and they do something different each day. Each center has a purpose to keep them engaged.”
Brianne Skilbred is president of the board of directors that oversees Stepping Stones’ operations. She said she got involved because she recognized the need for flexible childcare options in Valdez. She acts as troubleshooter, grant procurer and support for staff, and wants to make sure the center can serve Valdez for years to come.
“My husband and I are both working full time,” she said. “Being in a small town and not having a childcare facility can be a challenge. My daughter Evelyn has been at childcare since she was 4 months old, and now she’s 18 months old. I know that she’s in good hands now.”
Roche is thankful that Stepping Stones is back up and ready to serve the community. As a mom of three, she knows firsthand how hard it is to find affordable, reliable and safe childcare.
“At the time they were closing down (in 2017), I had three kids and there was no way I could continue working full time; there were no options for child care.”
Today, however, her 2-year-old daughter Kylie is enrolled. “With COVID, I’ve been working from home, so the first couple of days she had a little anxiety because she’s been home with me. But that didn’t take long. She loves it here. It’s a really happy atmosphere.”