McVILLE, N.D. - With tiny toenails painted a shade of hot pink to match her polka-dot dress, 2-year-old Stella Stein cuddled with a book in an upholstered blue rocker.
Grandmother Rosie Bierle just had fixed her lunch and a treat of peaches, and mother Michelle said it probably was getting close to naptime. It's tiring work to play all morning.
Stella's bed was four blocks away, but she would be fine laying her head down here. She felt happy and at home in the house with sunny windows, a spacious, shady backyard and bright purple irises popping in the garden.
"We want this place to be a home away from home," Stein said of the future Nelson County Health System's child care facility in McVille. "Children sometimes can spend 12 hours a day at child care, so we wanted it that way."
"Children can curl up on this soft couch," added longtime NCHS board president Judy Twete, brushing her hand across a plush cushion. "We want it to be comfy and homey, not so institutionalized. We didn't want just hard, little chairs you can keep clean only with Clorox."
The traditional home tucked in a quiet neighborhood and backed by conservation grasslands may be a nontraditional business plan, but Twete said it soon will provide a perfect solution for a common small-town challenge: finding enough quality child care.
'It's a win-win'
NCHS employs as many as 100 people throughout its hospital, clinic, nursing home and assisted living facilities in McVille, yet Twete said the town of 336 residents had just a single child care provider.
"This is a real bonus to this small town," she said. "We talked about how it would be a great recruiting tool. If someone was interested in a job before and they asked, 'Well is there day care?' we'd have to say 'Well, no.' Now we can say yes. And, as of now, there is no waiting list."
Twete said the board had talked about the child care shortage for years, and when Steve Forde became the new administrator this year, he made it his goal to do something about it.
"Then who but Michelle came to town and fell into our hands. It went together like clockwork," Twete said. "We are so lucky to have her to take charge. It's a win-win."
A kindergarten teacher and former child care director, Stein said her new role as child care director was pure serendipity. She and husband Bill were living in Wisconsin but often had talked about moving closer to family.
That talk turned serious really fast when they visited Bill's hometown of McVille over Christmas. Bill had an "in" with the family business, Stein Seed Co., so Michelle decided to check out her own job prospects with NCHS, the largest employer in town.
She spoke with Forde in December. He emailed her back in January, and the Steins bought a house and moved to McVille in March.
Ever since, Bill has been busy renovating their home while Michelle has worked to transform the NCHS house into a child care facility.
"I left a lot of our house to Bill. He just reports back to me at the end of the day," Stein said with a laugh. "I told him as soon as we get all these projects done, we'll have a little boy."
The couple are expecting their second child in November.
"You have kids now and you want them to have roots and know where they're from," Stein said. "This was a chance to be closer to our own families and make a home where everybody knows your name."
On a recent day, Stein just had finished putting together an art easel and was about to tackle a new table when she paused to give visitors a tour.
"It's bare at the moment, but I have a big picture in my head. I'm eager to get it all set up," she said. "Quality child care is such a need across our country. It makes it easier knowing your child is here in town with you. It's the convenience of having everything centrally located - your home, your job, your child - everything is here."
Twete sees it as a definite plus, too. Many NCHS employees currently drive between three towns for home, work and child care.
Stein and Twete say an open house is in the works, and they hope the facility will be open as soon as late July. Hours will be from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and, at least at first, enrollment will be limited to children of NCHS employees.
Though the home itself was move-in ready for family living, Stein said it required a few finishing touches to make it fit for a child care business.
As she shuffled guests from room to room, she pointed out some of the highlights. Child cubbies will stand against the long wall in the main entry, where there's also room for a soft play mat and a giant bulletin board to display artwork.
The living room will include separate spaces for dramatic play, blocks/manipulatives and a library/writing center. There's also a separate sleeping room for infants and another room where the children will begin the day with songs, stories and finger play.
A utility room holds a washer/dryer and a stockpile of clean sheets for the sleeping cots.
"If a child has an accident, I can just wash it right here," Stein said. "The parents don't have to send 10 different pairs of pants."
The cupboards are filled with art supplies - paint and pom-poms, sticky foam shapes, beads, colorful pipe cleaners and popsicle sticks. And open shelves are stocked with puzzles, toys and childhood staples such as Candyland and Chutes and Ladders.
A large fence is yet to come for the backyard, and Stein said she might put in a child-sized vegetable garden in the future.
For now, it's one baby step at a time.
"It's a perk to work here," she said. "We can ride our bikes to work. You can't beat that."