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It is rare in Montana to find a hospital offering on-site licensed child care for its employees, and rarer still to find a hospital expanding those services.

In a unique partnership with First English Lutheran Church, St. Vincent Healthcare has doubled the capacity of its on-campus child care center. The cooperative venture allows St. Vincent to enhance a tradition of day care it started in 2004 for its employees.

The $350,000 expansion doubles the capacity for newborn to 2-year-olds in the existing child care center, called Shirley's Place, and increases the capacity for 3- to 5-year-olds in the new center, Shirley's Place II, which is located across from the hospital at 1243 N. 31st St. The addition makes it possible to accommodate nearly 200 children, more than double the 90 that have been enrolled. The addition also meant hiring 11 new employees.

The announcement was upstaged by nearly 25 children who marched into a standing-room-only classroom and sang an original song created especially for the event, all against the backdrop of alphabet and primary number charts.

The child care facilities are designed to fit the sometimes difficult needs of health care providers working challenging shifts, including nurses and support staff. The pair of child care centers expanded hours to accommodate special hospital shifts.

“Our employees are the most critical element and are hugely important to our ministry,” said Maryann Reese, chief operating officer of St. Vincent Healthcare, adding that it gives the hospital a “competitive edge.”

Darrell and Cari Williams rely on Shirley's Place for the care of their two children, ages 3 and 5. Cari works at St. Vincent as a clinical supervisor. The child care center is the glue that helps bind the family as it navigates varying work schedules. Darrell said the day care center is convenient and accommodates his wife's schedule unlike any other place could. It also provides a sense of comfort.

“If anything happens, we are just a call away,” Darrell said. “If one of the kids is sick, we don't have to run all the way across town, and they are really good about letting us know how the kids are doing if we call.”

No single organization in the state tracks the number of hospitals that have child care facilities, but representatives from MHA, an association of Montana health care providers, child care resources and the Department of Public Health and Human Services, agree you could probably count the number on one hand. The only two hospitals they could identify, other than St. Vincent, is the Beartooth Children's Center, a Department of Beartooth Billings Clinic located at 114 Villard Ave. in Red Lodge and Kalispell Regional Medical Center. Community Medical Center in Missoula used to offer day care but eliminated the service because it was losing money. St. John's Lutheran Ministries, a Billings nursing home, offers child care to its employees.

David Irion, president and CEO of the St. Vincent Healthcare Foundation, applauded First English Lutheran Church for what he called a cutting-edge collaboration to share resources, while furthering both the hospital's and the church's ministries. He said the commitment to providing child care speaks to the “value and worth” of St. Vincent Healthcare employees.

“This is a partnership that works on many levels,” said the Rev. Mark Donald. “The opportunity to open Shirley's Place II within our facility is an obvious blessing to both the congregation and St. Vincent Healthcare. In addition, we believe that what benefits working families inherently benefits the community, and in that sense consider this relationship a win-win-win.”

Kelly Rosenleaf, executive director of the Missoula-based Child Care Resources, a leader in early childhood care and education, said the primary benefit of St. Vincent's child care services is that the child is on site. There are no transportation challenges should the child become ill. In the event of an emergency, the parent is easily accessible.

“This enables the parent to not only have more contact with their child, it allows the parent to see what is going on at the child care facility and how it is working out for the child,” Rosenleaf said. “They can have more contact with the child care providers and get feedback on how their child is engaging with other children and learning.”

Hospitals have a 24-7 work force and there are few regulated child care options available for evening, night and weekend care in most Montana communities.

It might make it easier to attract and retain workers with young families if hospitals offered child care, Rosenleaf said. Their workers might miss less work as a result.

Contact Cindy Uken at cuken@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287.

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Contact Cindy Uken at cuken@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287.

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