Caribou parents may quit their jobs if they can’t find child care

10 months ago

CARIBOU, Maine — If it weren’t for Miss Jordyn’s Child Development Center, Melinda Barnard never would have returned to Caribou.

Barnard’s 4-year-old daughter Nora is one of 100 children who were displaced last Monday when Jordyn Rossignol, owner of Miss Jordyn’s, announced she will close her center at the end of August. Faced with staff shortages and immense financial debt, Rossignol said the cost of operating the center exceeded the revenue she received from parents’ tuition.

Miss Jordyn’s was the largest child care center in Caribou and is closing after eight years. Rossignol’s center follows a trend of declining child care options in Aroostook and comes as local businesses struggle to find staff. Many parents who relied on Miss Jordyn’s fear that without other options for child care, they could be forced out of the workforce. The local child care crisis means that school and business leaders will have to explore solutions.

That will leave a burden on numerous industries, Rossignol said. Parents work a range of professions, including as nurses, physicians, mechanics, teachers, city employees, hospital administrators, accountants, truck drivers and entrepreneurs.

Barnard was working for Gardiner Main Street and had just given birth to Nora when she was offered a job at Central Aroostook Association as the nonprofit’s outreach specialist. A Caribou native, Barnard wanted to raise her three children closer to family.

Nora was just a baby, so without child care, there’s no way both Barnard and her husband Jeffrey could have worked after moving to Caribou, Barnard said. She was a stay-at-home mother for many years and said that child care is essential for women who want to re-enter the workforce.

“Jordyn’s place was the only center that didn’t have a wait list,” Barnard said, during a farewell gathering at Miss Jordyn’s Tuesday. “It would not have been feasible for us to relocate and for me to take the job [without child care].”

Barnard counts herself lucky. Her father, who is retired, can pick up Nora when her prekindergarten classes end for the day. Jeffrey works from home, so that gives the family more child care options.

Other families who relied on Rossignol’s center are even more worried.

Amanda Riopelle of Caribou poses with her daughters Mia, 7, (left) and Aaliyah, 3, during their final visit to Miss Jordyn’s Child Development Center. (Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican)

Amanda Riopelle’s two children, Mia, 7, and Aaliyah, 3, have been going to Miss Jordyn’s since they were infants. Until now, having consistent child care allowed both Riopelle and her husband Lamar, an electrician, to work. The Riopelles live in Caribou.

Since hearing Rossognol’s announcement, Riopelle has left her former job as a nursing home certified nurse’s assistant. She wants to accept a job offer from Aroostook County Action Program as a young adult community educator, but only if the organization can find a child care spot for Mia. ACAP currently does not offer after-school programs for children older than the pre-K level.

ACAP has been working to expand the capacity in its Early Care & Education program, beyond the usual cap of 136 children total, said Megan Barnes, director of programs.

So far, ACAP has hired 14 of Rossignol’s 16 former teachers. That will allow ACAP to open additional pre-K classrooms in Presque Isle and Caribou and use their classroom at Limestone Community School as overflow for extra students from Caribou. Barnes expects at least 30 to 35 new slots for children spread out between ACAP’s infant and pre-K centers in Presque Isle, Caribou and Limestone.

ACAP is working to possibly start an after-school program for older children with a community partner. But ACAP still must prioritize spots for children already enrolled in other ACAP programs, Barnes said.

Without ACAP, there will be no other child care center that can take both Aaliyah and Mia, since all other local centers are full, Riopelle said. If that happens, she’ll have to stay home and take care of her children. That will leave her and Lamar with only one paycheck to pay the rising costs of food, electricity and other essentials.

It’s not just families who will struggle if parents quit work, said May-Ling Silva of Caribou, whose children Kensli, 7, and Omni Silva-Mills, 2, attended Miss Jordyn’s.

Silva is a server at Jade Palace in Caribou. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic began to subside and more people dined out, Jade continued to struggle finding enough staff.

“I’m the only full-time server. If I quit, [Jade’s owners] might have to close the dining room sometimes,” Silva said. “I left early tonight [to visit Rossignol], and that left one server to take care of a 40-table restaurant.”

Tales like these show that Aroostook’s child care crisis is a major workforce development issue, said Jane McCall, interim superintendent of Regional School Unit 39 in Caribou.

So far, RSU 39 has avoided losing employees because of Rossignol’s closure. Four employees have found alternative child care options. But fewer child care options has discouraged many potential employees from applying, McCall said.

The day after Rossignol announced her closure, McCall hosted a child care-themed meeting with leaders from local companies, including Cary Medical Center in Caribou and Defense Finance and Accounting Service’s Limestone branch. Caribou City Manager Penny Thompson also attended.

McCall was planning the meeting before Rossignol made her announcement. But the latest news has spurred the group to explore potential solutions more seriously, McCall said.

“This is absolutely a workforce issue,” McCall said. “I think it has gotten to the point where no single entity can solve it on their own. It’s a community problem that’s going to involve our community working as a group.”