Dana Santini understands why the childcare facility she runs in Hazen is so valuable to the community. The local businesses do as well, which is why they chose to undertake such a big project to make it happen.

A collaboration of businesses including Basin Electric Power Cooperative formed a co-op to tackle the childcare needs of the community. As October is Co-op month, North Dakota Farmers Union is celebrating communities turning to cooperatives to solve their problems.

Hazen School District superintendent Ken Miller, who sits on the co-op board, said the town of roughly 2,300 needed to solve a growing crisis in the community. At-home daycares were looking to close, but felt obligated to stay open. 

“We had some people who were in, but didn’t want to be anymore,” he said. “They knew they had to do it.”

Energy Capital Cooperative Child Care was introduced as a facility that would house a large portion of the community’s children. The center has exceeded expectations, housing 87 children including 77 at any one time.

“There was a huge need for daycare in this area,” said Santini, who is director of the facility. “Companies were losing employees. Parents were having to double up on shifts to make daycare work. Some companies saw that need, came together and formed a daycare.“

Joining Basin Electric Power Cooperative were Sakakawea Medical Center, North American Coal Corporation, Union State Bank, Knife River Care Center, Coal Country Community Health Centers, Coyote Station and Hazen Public Schools.

Each of the companies involved have a seat on the co-op board, which Miller said is important because of the local control.

“We needed something bigger to scale,” he said. “Being able to form a co-op meant it could include a wide range of entities, whereas allowing someone else to have it in their hands doesn’t always turn out the way you want it and it usually doesn’t get to the finish line. To make sure it did go to the finish line, we needed to band together.

“Our financial partners probably felt in order for their investment to be worth it, they needed to make sure they had an ownership in it and to be part of it.”

The center opened in May of 2017 with 30 kids and draws children from 20 miles around Hazen. It features separate rooms for infants, older infants, 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds, as well as a combined room for 4-5-year-olds and then one for school-aged children. Outside, there are separate playgrounds for infant/toddlers and preschool/school-aged children. The daycare is run inside of a former church on the west end of town.

“Our families love it,” she said. “We had one family call looking for a spot. I always ask them to come and meet the teachers and take a tour. Her answer was, ‘I already know parents who (send their kids there). I’m comfortable with what they tell me, so I’m good to go.’”

Going forward, Santini said the co-op is discussing whether a second facility in nearby Beulah is necessary, as they have parents from Beulah who make the drive. In this facility, however, the focus is on more fundraising for updates including new flooring.

“We need to replace that because we have a lot of little bodies running around,” she said.

Kids Academy

A similar situation unfolded a few years earlier in Berthold, which saw at-home daycares closed and left a void. Andy Fjeldahl, manager of the Farmers Union Oil Company of Berthold and Carpio, saw a need for the community and decided to take action.

“We lost all of our at-home daycares, so a few of us got together and discussed what we could really do going forward,” Fjeldahl said. “I was losing employees because there was no daycare.”

Fjeldahl and others started fundraising for a daycare, which started in a church and eventually moved into a new building in 2013. While the daycare, named Kids Academy, is technically a non-profit with a five-person board, it is run similar to a cooperative with Fjeldahl’s roots from the co-op world.

“It’s like a co-op as far as representation of a board and membership,” said Fjeldahl, who has been a board member since its inception. “The main difference is we don’t pay dividends.”

The board is made up of three parents and two non-parents, typically local business leaders like Fjeldahl. The community has played a big part, especially in the beginning when $500,000 was raised to build the facility and get the ball rolling.

“We had some really nice grants,” Fjeldahl said. “Verendrye (Electric Cooperative) was very good to us with a zero percent loan through USDA.”

While the facility works well in the community, it’s not without its challenges. Currently, a staffing shortage keeps the child count well below the 30 that would normally be allowed.

“Our biggest issue is getting help — being able to pay enough, but also not make it too expensive,” Fjeldahl said. 

Kids Academy continues to look for ways to improve the experience for their children. It’s fundraising for an infant playground to add to its regular playground for ages 3-5. Additionally, they’re hoping to raise money for an awning to their rolling gardens, which gives the children a chance to learn how to grow produce.

Fjeldahl said the community has embraced the Kids Academy.

“My family has always been in the community and involved with co-ops, and it was a need here for our businesses,” he said. “The community has been very supportive of everything.”