A lack of childcare and service for the youngest members of the Anacortes community continues to be a barrier for families all over the island, according to area leaders.
The Samish Indian Nation is making strides to ease the problem with help from the state and federal governments and area service clubs.
The tribe broke ground last week on its new Early Learning Center on D Avenue. The center will provide a Head Start program for infants from 0-3 years old in town. The new location is just down the street from its daycare center for older children.
Roughly $3.4 million came from government funding and grants. More than $100,000 also came from the Synergy Project, a group that brings together many Anacortes service groups to focus on a specific project.
The project will likely open up in fall of 2024, but a home-based version of the program will start up in the next few months, Samish COO Kimberlee Anderson said.
The home program will send 10 teachers into the community to help new and expectant mothers, as well as collect referrals for the coming center and help anyone who needs it access social services.
This program came about because of many people, including Nicole Mortimer. The early learning coordinator with the Anacortes School District did a community assessment years ago and found that infant care and early childhood education was a major need in the community, Anderson said. Her work led people to seek a solution.
Now, the early learning center is underway, though it's taken a long time and many helping hands to get to this point, Anderson said.
Eric Johnson, who is a liaison between the Samish Nation and the Synergy Group, said when it came to finding a common theme for all the service clubs in town to support, childcare really stood out.
"We were able to work together to make this a better place to live," he said.
They saw a serious need here and across the Skagit Valley and knew they wanted to help make a difference, he said.
Anderson and the Samish project helped make everything fit together, he said.
The center will have 40 slots for young children. Of those, 51% will be from low-income families. Spots are open to the community as a whole.
Samish Chairman Tom Wooten said that children are an essential part of this community, so it's great to see people come together in such a big way. This community has always included the Samish Indian Nation, and its people want to help, he said.
"We're here to nourish and develop our young ones and everyone else's, too," he said.
Anacortes School District Superintendent Justin Irish said he's seen what a lack of early childhood education can mean for young students. Many come into kindergarten unprepared, he said.
"As a former third-grade teacher and elementary school principal, I have witnessed the pivotal role early education played in the academic success of a child," Irish said.
A lack of childcare and early learning education also means families have to choose between working and having someone stay home to care for the children. That contributes to the workforce shortage seen in so many industries across the region right now, said state Rep. Alex Ramel.
As the tribal nation held its groundbreaking, city workers were completing a surveying project along the perimeter of the property and out on D Avenue. They will add a road along the edge of the property, which will give access to the property as well as more parking, Anderson said.
The Samish Nation is also working with the city on adding crosswalks across D Avenue and making the area a school zone to slow cars down and keep kids safer, Wooten said.
Some plants left from the D Avenue Nursery, which used to stand on the site, will be part of the landscaping of the space, as well as other native plants, Anderson said.