NEXT STEPPING STONE: Day care steps out in a new direction

COLUMBIA CITY — With little less than a month to prepare, what was known as Stepping Stones Day Care has closed, moved and will re-open Monday at 6 a.m. as a child care program under the Whitley County YMCA.Stepping Stones Director Debbie Gates will continue with the YMCA’s program. According to Gates, parents who had utilized the day care that was once housed with First Church of God in Columbia City, were concerned over the idea of not having a childcare program in Columbia City.“The parents were worried about having to take their kids to Fort Wayne or Warsaw. There were other childcare options, but finding one that could absorb 130 kids made parents think of looking to other cities,” said Gates.With the news of Stepping Stones Day Care closing, parents came together to form a task force focused on finding a new childcare solution.Gates said, “The YMCA had been interested in having a childcare program about five years ago. They had thought about starting their own. So, when this happened, it was like a door opening for them and for us.”To Gates and the many parents she served, there wasn’t a question of need. After a 13 year partnership with First Church of God, the parent task force was faced with finding the right facility. It was the parents that spearheaded the charge to see that childcare stayed in Columbia City. Within four days of the announcement that Stepping Stones was closing, parents were working on meetings and taking action.City leaders also got behind the need. Gates said that in one of the meetings held with parents, Mayor Ryan Daniel was present and commented on the need for a local childcare program. Doug Brown, from the Whitley County Chamber of Commerce, agreed.On Monday morning, the former Stepping Stones staff of about 13 will operate as YMCA employees. Gates said that the YMCA and its board has agreed to a short term commitment for a childcare program that is an extension of what the YMCA offers and it will be considered as one of the many programs that serve local families. In fact, according to Miller, the YMCA is the largest childcare provider in the nation, but the greater Fort Wayne area YMCAs don’t provide that service. This is unique to the area and a first for the Whitley County location.“Right now we won’t be a licensed childcare program because we are waiting on the proper inspections. But we hope in two weeks to have classified as a registered ministry,” Gates said.The classification change will mean less stringent regulations on the program. Gates said that this means that their new location, New Hope Wesleyan Church, will be able to meet the guidelines for the state.One of the biggest changes parents will face comes down to food. Under the new classification, the childcare program will not provide lunches and snacks for the kids. “Under Stepping Stones, the kids were not allowed to bring their own food. We even provided infant foods. Now, kids will bring their own lunches and snacks,” Gates said. “New Hope Wesleyan has a simple kitchen and is not able to meet the state requirements for us to serve meals. These are just some of the bugs we have to work out.”Miller said that New Hope Wesleyan Church has “been great at stepping up and filling a void.” Stepping Stones last day open was Friday. Gates said a group of parents and staff from First Church of God took care of moving equipment today. “We are leaving a lot and taking a lot. But that is the agreement we’ve come to,” said Gates.Sunday, an open house will be held at the program’s new location from 2 to 4 p.m. for parents to come and see where they will be dropping off their kids come Monday morning.New Hope Wesleyan is located at 971 N. 400 West in Columbia City. For more information on the new childcare program, contact the Whitley County YMCA at 244-9622.