The Early Childhood Development Project

by Vicki Heisser  |   

Finding good and affordable childcare and having the tools to ensure that care promotes their children’s physical and intellectual development, can be difficult for many working parents, and Valdez, Alaska, is no exception. Understanding this challenge, PWSC’s Dr. Teresa Barton and Megan Gunderson are working on a program to create, as Megan puts it, “a wider network of childcare in Valdez,” and to establish workshops and classes that focus on promoting children’s “physical and intellectual development.” To this end, they’ve created the Early Childhood Development Project. 

Gunderson explains, “This project is the culmination of many conversations with key stakeholders around the region, all of whom are actively seeking to increase the quality of life for families with young children.”

As a former K-12 teacher, Gunderson is familiar with childcare and educational issues here in Alaska. “I have always looked for work that makes a positive difference in the world. Thus far, every job I’ve had has been focused on providing tools for others to achieve their educational or professional goals.” She joined PWSC in June, 2019, after 10 years as a K-12 teacher. Now, as an instructor at the college, she is using her “professional history in education and new role as an instructional designer at the college to assist Dr. Barton with the early learning program planning.”

For Gunderson, working with Dr. Barton began after the two had several discussions about early childhood education in rural Alaska. Dr. Barton elaborates on the joint effort to help Alaskans with childcare and education.

“Megan and I both are coming up with the curriculum and working on establishing partnerships with locals to teach a series of workshops, such as health and safety, and classes on fostering safe learning and care environments that promote physical and intellectual development. As a community, we know the demands for childcare, but we also need to focus on the curriculum and methods we use in taking care of such an important population in our community. Overall, I believe more of an effort needs to be made, whether it be access to childcare or providing assistance and learning opportunities for new parents, in our community.” 

Here in Valdez, Gunderson explains, “Working parents need choice and availability for childcare. I know many valued citizens of Valdez have quit jobs or move their entire family solely due to a lack of available, quality, affordable childcare options.”  But to have this “quality” care, would-be childcare employees need the training necessary to create such an environment, and the early learning series at PWSC was created to do just this.

Gunderson states, “The early learning series we are creating at PWSC will provide current child care professionals the opportunity to dive deeper into their field and explore research-driven topics from early childhood experts around the region.  Ideally, many participants will choose to use these workshops to pursue a Childhood Development Associate credential (the most widely recognized national credential in early childhood education).  I believe this new professional development series will also recruit new childcare professionals to the field, thus eventually increasing the Valdez childcare network size.”

Dr. Barton knows first hand the difficulty of finding childcare here in Alaska. She describes, “My husband [and I] have also shared in these challenges. Our biggest challenge after having my daughter was finding childcare. There were no spots available at our only licensed daycare facility in town and we did not have a big network of friends and family to help us out--my husband and I moved here in 2017 and we have no family here.”

For Barton, leaving her career, even for a short time, was not an option. Her identity is tied to the job she loves, and the cost of living in Valdez  is such that having only one income is a challenge.“Going back to work, for me, was essential, as I absolutely love teaching and I have worked very hard to get where I am in my career. It is unfortunate that many mothers and fathers have to give up their careers when they do not necessarily want to because of the lack of access to childcare, especially affordable childcare.”

Even if parents do not have to leave their careers, their workplaces don’t often provide certain essentials for new mothers. Barton also acknowledges that, while her employer provides a private place for mothers to breastfeed or pump, many do not. She also notes that “there is a lack of paid maternity and paternity leave in this country. Having a child is very expensive and this is confounded by the loss of income from having a child.”

Gunderson and Dr. Barton are using their professional and personal experiences to help them create the much needed program in Valdez. As parents themselves, they also have goals for their own children, not unlike many of the parents in their community. As a mother, Gunderson’s main goal is, as she describes, “To give my children a safe environment that provides growth opportunity through each phase of their development. My children are 3 and 5, so right now that looks like finding safe places to play and explore outside, providing toys that promote imaginative play, reading a wide variety of books aloud, and enrolling them in an excellent school district. Valdez so far has made that easy to accomplish!”

 While Gunderson has been able to provide her children with many opportunities thus far, and has goals for them for the future, it isn’t always easy. She expresses the difficulty that comes along with trying to balance one’s work and home life and says that while she used to feel guilty about putting her family before her work, or vice versa, she refuses to do so anymore. “It’s not enough to survive life,” she notes, “I wanted to thrive both professionally and personally.”

Before coming to Valdez, Gunderson spent months researching and applying for different positions with the aim of meeting her personal and professional goals, and she found one at PWSC. “PWSC is the first workplace that has offered me that kind of guilt-free work-life balance, and I am forever grateful!”

Dr. Barton too felt the guilt Gunderson experienced, and so did her husband. “We were lucky to have found a great nanny, but we still felt like we were abandoning [our daughter]. Time is the only thing that really helped with that. At this point, I can honestly say I no longer feel guilty about being in a family of working parents. I love what I do and simultaneously love being a mom.”

Gunderson and Dr. Barton have found a way to achieve their personal and professional goals, and they know their children are in good hands when they are hard at work, developing the careers they love. Those careers have now led them to creating the Early Childhood Development Project that will hopefully allow other parents to continue their respective work all while knowing their children are receiving childcare that provides a safe and educational environment.