‘Little Eagles’ Soar: New child care center to fill gaps

BLUE RIVER — During the heat and challenge of the Holiday Farm Fire, which flattened 173,393 acres of rural Lane County in 2020, McKenzie High School emerged as a safe space — a hub for families, friends and community members to gather, grieve, and lean on each other. 

The unincorporated community has continued the slow, tenuous process of rebuilding, and this week, the McKenzie School District celebrated a big win — opening the McKenzie Little Eagles Child Care Center. The Center is expected to not only fill a gap for families after the Holiday Farm Fire, but to attract new families to the area.

“After the fire it became very clear to us that we were going to need to provide some form of child care to retain and recruit new families,” said Lacey Joy, MSD’s special programs coordinator. “Being able to offer this is huge — not just for the families using the services, but for the families I was able to hire and bring in to work here. We were able to bring in six new employees, which is huge for this community.”

Before now, there were no licensed childcare facilities within the district’s boundaries, making it tough for families to return to work after the COVID-19 pandemic and the lingering impacts of the Holiday Farm Fire.

“As child care is essential for working families, this will be a fantastic resource for the regrowth of this community,” said Jessica Marie, director of the child care center. “I’m thrilled for this opportunity.” 

This Center will offer young students safe spaces that allow children to learn, both through education and socially,  and will provide a safe place for families to begin their early childhood education.

“This program introduces the kids to the McKenzie school long before they ever enter the doors as a kindergartner,” Joy said. “Being able to care for these kids, potentially from two all the way to 17 is incredible. … We were in a child care desert up here, and now, families are excited to have a space that is safe for their children. We’re the perfect organization to provide care.” 

The District has been working hard to provide quality education and support to families in the Blue River area, raising $420,000 from local donors to spearhead the project.

“Our community was devastated by the 2020 fires, and our families have been struggling to get back on their feet,” said Lane Tompkins, McKenzie schools superintendent. “We recognize the need for reliable and affordable childcare in our community, and we see this as a way to build back and attract new Eagles.”

Lane County government officials last week awarded the center $200,000 in grants to help offset costs and pay for staff. 

“We were lucky to have the school survive,” said Heather Buch, Lane County Commissioner for the McKenzie area. “Child care is critical, and this project is a partnership between the school system and the County — so that when people move back here, they can be a success.” 

The county dollars are coming from back tax revenues specifically for fire-damaged areas to recoup the losses in property taxes they felt after the fire. 

“This is an unincorporated community, so there isn’t a council or government beyond what the county provides,” said Matt McRae, the county’s long-term disaster recovery manager. “So the  the school district really does provide that organizing capability. We wouldn’t be nearly as far as we are now without all the work from the school.” 

Many of the new hires for the center are working mothers – something Joy is incredibly proud of – and will bolster the local economy. 

“They’re all local moms,” Joy said. “They get to be with their kids, while they work and have adequate and reliable child care – each of them has a child in the age range we’re serving, and as a mother, that’s the greatest gift, to be with your kids.” 

Angie Smith, parent, said she wouldn’t be able to work if it weren’t for the childcare center. She’s excited that her three-year-old daughter will get to play and learn with others while getting better prepared for school.

“When the fire happened up here a lot of residents left, and that included a lot of day care providers that were up here, people with small children,” Smith said. “Coming back into this area, a lot of residents are moving back again, and now needing these childcare options so they can start working, and start building this community back again.”