After 45 years of serving the community, the Rocking Horse Child Care Center at United Methodist Church of the Pines in Minocqua will be closing effective Nov. 1 due to a shortage in staff, rendering the child care center unable to maintain operations.

Since it opened in 1974 in response to a need for a localized affordable child care facility, Rocking Horse Child Care Center has become a well-known fixture in the community with dependable and affordable child care services in Minocqua.

“It’s been one of the key ways that Church of the Pines has been connecting to and serving our community for those decades,” pastor Mark Gilbert said. “This is something that’s really, really hard for us as a church and for the community, but really, especially for families that we’re serving.”

According to a letter issued by the United Methodist Church of the Pines, the decision to close was made following an “exhaustive search for qualified teachers and teacher’s aides to hire” in order to meet licensing requirements established by the Department of Children and Families.

“We knew we’ve been understaffed, pushing our staff at the limit for a few months, and we’ve been working hard to try and find those qualified applicants,” Gilbert said, adding there had been no responses or inquiries into the open positions.



Lack of adequate staffing

According to Gilbert, he realized in October, the church recognized changes needed to be made, whether it be continuing the search for staffing or becoming creative with the staff they currently had.

Gilbert said the church realized, come November, Rocking Horse wouldn’t have the staff to remain open and stay within state licensing requirements, and so the church made the decision to close.

“It was not an easy decision for the leadership of the church,” church administrator Merry Jorgensen said. “Every avenue that we had to explore, we did.”

Though the center did host its summer child care program, which provided all-day care for grade school-aged children, Jorgensen said it became “very evident” in the fall that the center needed staff to fill open positions.

The lack of inquiries into those open positions put Rocking Horse into a situation where having inadequate or unqualified staffing requirements for the child-staff ration would make the center non-compliant with state licensing, and therefore jeopardize their license.

“We can’t offer child care to these kids. You can’t jeopardize their health and well-being by not being properly staffed,” Gilbert said.

Rocking Horse is licensed to have 50 students in its facility at a time, and serves children two through 12. 

“Of course, whether or not, how many children is based upon the number of staff and the qualifications of the staff per age group,” Jorgensen said.

According to director Mary Kollath, the ratio breaks down to students per one teacher, meaning one teacher could hold a class of six two-year olds, eight two-and-a-half year olds, 10 three-year-olds, 13 four-year-olds, 16 five and older, and 17 six and older. 

“Most of those numbers double if we had an aide, which would help also, but at this point, in November, we’re down to two teachers,” Kollath said. “One would be including myself as director. So, technically one teacher and me.”

Kollath said she had lost four teachers in the last three to four years to elementary school 4-K and paraprofessional programs.

“I can’t compete with those wages,” she said. “But they have to be able to care for their families, too.”

Rocking Horse Child Care Center provides services for approximately 51 families and their children, with upwards of 70 students during the summer, Gilbert estimated.

These children, according to Gilbert, range across several age groups and how often they attend.

“That’s a lot of kids and a lot of families that are just reeling,” he said.

“We’ve been able to, for 45 years, to provide a safe environment for these children to go, five days a week,” Kollath said. “It’s very hard, and I know it’s hard on the families too.”



‘It will be difficult for families’

The United Methodist Church of the Pines communicated the closure with parents and guardians of the students, giving them just two weeks to find and secure alternative child care options.

“Two weeks, that’s not enough time, but that’s what we had,” Gilbert said.

While two weeks may not be enough time to secure alternative child care services, families looking for local providers may also have some difficulty there.

“What we are experiencing at Church of the Pines, other child care centers are experiencing as well, and I would anticipate it will be challenging for parents,” Jorgensen said. 

According to Jorgensen, these child care centers have attempted to combat the problem through reducing the number of children served as well as looking at the age groups they serve and creating waiting lists.

“Unfortunately, for our community, there’s not an easy answer,” Gilbert said.

As the loss of a childcare facility in Minocqua is felt throughout the community, parents are facing the brunt of finding alternative child care options for their children.

According to parent Jill Yelton, families were notified on Thursday, Oct. 17 that Rocking Horse would be closing due to staffing the issues.

Yelton said that, unless families had other family members immediately in the area that could provide care, options for child care providers were limited.

“There is nothing up here,” she said. “All other child care providers are full and have waiting lists.”

Yelton also said there had been conversations amongst parents involved where some were talking about potentially having to quit their jobs in order to provide care for their children.

“It’s a little different if you give us a three-month notice, or a six-month notice, but we’re talking two weeks here,” she said.

Overall, Kollath said most of the families, like Yelton, had been concerned about what they were going to do, especially with having jobs and needing care for their children. Others offered condolences, while some were angry and sad.

“Everybody reacts different, but they’re entitled to their reactions,” Kollath said. “It’s a great, big shock that is handed to them, but without that staff, we can’t safely and legally take care of their children.”

Kollath is just one of the many affected by the closure, both as a parent and the director of the center. She’s worked with Rocking Horse as a teacher’s aide, a teacher, and assistant director before becoming director.

“Come the first of November, I don’t have a job that I’ve had for 20 years,” Kollath said.

She also sees the parent side of it, she said.

As far as staff, Kollath said another employee had just started her 15th year with the center.

“It’s very hard on all of us, we love the children. We love them very much. We love the families that we have. It’s heartbreaking,” Kollath said. “Some of the families I have, I have the children of the children I had years ago.”

Gilbert praised the existing and former staff for their hard work over the years.

“What people have given to our community and to the families and children in our community for that period of time is, you just can’t even express how much they have given and what that’s going to mean,” he said.

While the center will no longer be able to provide the care, the church understands the need and demand for quality child care services in the community.

“We really want to do whatever we can to help parents to navigate through a process of feeling a tremendous loss,” Jorgensen said. 

Jorgensen added the church would do what it could to connect parents with other local providers that had vacancies.

Kollath sympathizes with the parents.

“I know what they’re going through, and it isn’t going to be easy,” she said.



Community impact

The decision to close Rocking Horse Child Care came as a shock to the community it has served for over 40 years.

“We know it’s going to be a big impact. This is bigger than just our church, it’s bigger than just our family, it’s going to have a ripple effect throughout our community,” Gilbert said.

From his own children, to members of the community who used to attend and now send their own children, Gilbert said the loss would be a hard one for the community.

Jorgensen compared losing the child care center to a grieving process, and the varying emotions that came with it.

A meeting for parents was held at the church yesterday to answer questions.

“The parents are in shock, they’re angry, they’re wondering what’s going on, all of it. When you have a loss, I liken it a lot to grief, all those questions and feelings and emotions are part of it,” Gilbert said. “We’re committed to being present and trying to work through that with them however we can help them, but unfortunately, we just can’t offer the child care.”

“If it were not for not having qualified staff to hire, the Rocking Horse would still be open and thriving,” Jorgensen said.

Kayla Houp may be reached via email at kaylah@lakelandtimes.com.