Here’s how a new Sheboygan nonprofit aims to make child care more accessible for local families

SHEBOYGAN – Angel Berry was a young, single mom. She struggled, she said, with little support as she cared for her two kids.

Eventually, she found her way to a parent support group in West Bend that became her second family and grew her confidence as a parent, she said. With the support, she fought for a proper diagnosis for her oldest son, who is on the autism spectrum, which was necessary for getting him the proper treatment.

“It takes a village to raise a child, and not everybody has a village,” Berry said.

Her second family was there to be her village. Now that her kids are grown up, Berry is teaming up with partner Nena Bemis to create a village for other parents in need.

Berry and Bemis are in the process of opening a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, inclusive and accessible child care facility in Sheboygan. Located at the corner of Superior Avenue and North 29th Street, A Million Dreamz, Inc., will be a nonprofit that serves children from birth to 18.

“We want to make sure that we do have staffing … so that any need that comes through the door, we’ll be able to say, ‘Absolutely we can make that work,'” Berry said.

The project is unlike anything else currently offered in the county. Berry and Bemis emphasized that they’re going to need support from the community to turn this dream into a reality.

A home away from home

Berry and Bemis have already gone before the city’s planning commission and filed paperwork with the state to become a nonprofit. They plan to apply for a license that will allow them to care for up to 50 kids at a time, although they expect to grow quickly.

A Million Dreamz has a five-person board of directors consisting of Berry, Bemis, Lynn Potyen, Paul Seymour and Ginger Boldt. Potyen is a local business owner and the mother of a child with special needs, Seymour brings nonprofit experience and Boldt works with special needs children in the Plymouth School District.

An independent donor is providing the space that will become A Million Dreamz. (In an interview, Berry declined to discuss the organization’s current source of funding.)

Renovations on the existing building are planned to start in late February 2020, and Berry and Bemis hope the facility will be operable by next fall. Still in the design phase, plans include the creation of four bedrooms for kids who need overnight care, a nursery, multiple ADA accessible bathrooms, an elevator, a kitchen and various recreation rooms.

A Million Dreamz is working with Abacus Architects and J & N Construction for design and construction of the facility.

A rendering of the new child care facility coming fall 2020 called A Million Dreamz is planned in Sheboygan. (Photo: Courtesy of Abacus Architects)

The vision for the space is to feel like home on the inside and out, Berry said. Cozy reading corners, a space for Friday night movies and room indoors to run and play are planned to keep kids comfortable throughout the Wisconsin winter. A picket fence and swing set are planned for outside.

One bedroom will be set up as an infirmary, so parents can bring sick kids to avoid taking time off work, Berry said. This is just one example of how A Million Dreamz hopes to be meet the needs of all parents.

Safety is a top priority for Berry and Bemis. The facility will have secured entrances, privacy windows and a six-foot fence lining the green space outside, Berry said.

Filling the gap in child care in the county

Michelle Christus works for a local agency that helps match low-income families with child care providers. She said there’s a shortage of child care options in the county.

“There are wait lists going into 2021 already,” Christus said.

More specifically, there are limited options for parents who work second- or third-shift jobs. The agency where Christus works, Family Connections, gets at least one call a month from a parent in need of such care.

Staff can refer them to one facility that is open until midnight and two in-home day cares that offer overnight care, but more often, they direct parents to websites where they can find a nanny or a babysitter.

Berry has also connected with local companies that have told her that people have turned down job offers to work second or third shift because of child care challenges.

Berry and Bemis also hope to serve kids whose needs can’t be met at more traditional day cares. For staff, they’ll aim to attract recent graduates or graduate students studying subjects like education, social work or counseling, who will be equipped to care for children of varying needs.

“We really want to be in a position where somebody can come in and say, ‘This is the struggle that I’m having.’ And we can say, ‘We gotcha,'” Berry said.

This also goes for parents who may need to find child care during an emergency, or who just need a date night.

Finding affordable child care can be challenging

Financial accessibility will be an important aspect of A Million Dreamz’s care. Its status as a nonprofit will allow it to apply for grants and other sources of funding to help supplement costs for parents.

The Wisconsin Department of Children and Families offers a child care subsidy for qualifying parents through a program called Wisconsin Shares. In order for a child care facility to accept the Wisconsin Shares subsidy, it must participate in a quality rating system.

A Million Dreamz will participate in the rating system, Berry said, so it can reach families who rely on the state’s support for child care.

An average of 233 children were served through the Wisconsin Shares program in Sheboygan County between January and September of this year, according to data from the state.

Berry and Bemis hope to have a scholarship program, and parents will only pay for the time that their child is actually receiving care and never for reserving a spot, Berry said.

“I can’t tell you the number of jobs I lost trying to find quality child care for my kids,” Berry said. “Having a special needs son, I had to take a lot of time off for all of the appointments and things that he needed. So we’re trying to make sure that we can support a family any way that they need support.”