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Published September 28, 2010, 10:43 AM

Powers Lake young ranchers child care, preschools vital

POWERS LAKE, N.D. — Jessica Bullinger seems exactly the kind of young woman that policy-makers want to come back to its rural communities. In business with her parents on their farm and ranch, she’s also a community leader, helping to fill a need for child care and preschool options she feels are vital to her hometown’s economic health.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

POWERS LAKE, N.D. — Jessica Bullinger seems exactly the kind of young woman that policy-makers want to come back to its rural communities. In business with her parents on their farm and ranch, she’s also a community leader, helping to fill a need for child care and preschool options she feels are vital to her hometown’s economic health.

Bullinger, 29, is the fifth generation on her family’s ranch. She is the oldest of four daughters of Mark and Kathy Barenthsen, longtime purebred red Angus breeders and farmers. Three of her sisters have married ranchers in North Dakota or Montana. The youngest is single and in college.

In statewide 4-H livestock judging events in high school, Jessica met young Jeremy Bullinger, who grew up on a ranch near Dickinson, N.D. The two went on to North Dakota State University in Fargo, where they started dating.

“We were in Saddle and Sirloin Club together. I was the manager of the Little International in 2003,” Jessica says of her college days. “Same degree, same group of friends.”

Jeremy picked up his diploma in winter 2002 — an ag economics degree, with a finance emphasis. Jessica got her ag econ degree in spring 2003, with an emphasis on communications. The two were married in July 2003.

The Bullinger couple’s initial goal was to get experience in their fields, off the farm, with a hope of returning to the ranch. They started married life at Minot, N.D. He was hired as a loan officer for Farm Credit Services of North Dakota. She started in insurance and, in 2005, became marketing director for the North Dakota State Fair, a post she held for more than three years. Two children were born in Minot — Jaden, now 5, and Avah, nearly 3.

In July 2007, Jeremy quit his job and moved 75 miles to Powers Lake to start farming and ranching with the in-laws. Jessica kept her job until May 2008 and then returned home, too. They felt fortunate to be able to buy a farmstead that came up for sale a mile from her parents’ place. In the past year, they renamed the ranch the Barenthsen-Bullinger Red Angus, and they also raise field peas and durum, spring and winter wheat.

Farming and ranching is busy, and Jessica soon realized that as good as Grandma Kathy was, there were times when both women were busy with the business and it might be nice occasionally to have a child care and preschool option. They could see others needed it, too.

The child care need

Powers Lake isn’t a big population area of the state, but it’s currently hopping — both because of agriculture, energy and related activity.

“We just have a lot of people coming back,” Bullinger says.

The town had some good child care, but it was limited in capacity.

In 2009, some parents around the community started talking about a child care shortage. But they also wanted a preschool, she recalls. They set up a steering committee for each project. That summer, the Bullingers represented the steering groups in attend a “Pre-Kindergarten Summit” in Bismarck, N.D., where the Department of Public Instruction educated people the benefits and the process of building this infrastructure. Among other things, the Bullingers realized they’d need money and a building.

“It came to the group’s attention that there was an empty business in town, sitting right there on Main Street,” she says. “It was a dental clinic, built in the 1980s by community people to try to bring businesses to town. It functioned for many years, but for the last few years, it was sitting vacant.”

Bullingers and others started thinking about how the dental building could house a child care facility upstairs and a preschool downstairs. (Child care is for caring for children during the day. A preschool has a formalized curriculum and educational function beyond that.)

They were headed in the right direction, but things accelerated when they got in touch with North Dakota nonprofit organization called Child Care Resource & Referral, a program of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota.

Those endless rules

“We were parents; we didn’t know the rules and regulations as to what we needed,” Bullinger says.

“We wondered, ‘Would this work? Could this function as a decent child care?’” she recalls.

CCR&R specialists, including Shonda Wild, a coordinator from Bismarck, and Blake Crosby, a business adviser from Fargo, helped supply those answers.

Wild and Crosby hosted a “community needs assessment” meeting at the Powers Lake Senior Citizens Center in August 2009.

“They had a positive, kind of overwhelming response,” she says.” We knew there was a need, but a lot of parents showed up to talk about it. We had more than 30 people — some grandparents and some business owners, some from the City Council.”

Bullinger and her friends also created a child care steering committee created a 10-person start-up committee. Among others, they consulted Keith Olson, of the North Dakota Small Business Development Center office in Williston, N.D. The child care people toured established facilities in Crosby and Watford City, N.D., to get hints on how to make it work.

“We found out that a child care facility has an ability to cash-flow, but not if it has to take on much debt,” she says.

They figured they could get something going if they had about $55,000 to work with. CCR&R offered training on business management and helped with Child Development Associate certification. The board actually holds the licenses.

Some key supporters

With no money upfront, the group went to the Powers Lake Main Street Improvement Association, which owned the dental facility.

The association had been around for years — a corporation of individuals purchase property and make things happen for the community, including the now-defunct dental office. The group was getting older, however, and wanted to sell the dental office.

They needed at least $55,000 to buy the building and retrofit it. They have since found they’d need another $10,000 for incidentals.

“That ended up falling into place,” Jessica says. “Three individuals in the community loaned us $30,000 to purchase the building. There are people who believe in what we’re doing and believe small communities have something to offer, and that we can grow, and are committed to doing that.

“We went to our city tax board and they gave us $15,000 for a 1 percent interest loan and a grant of $10,000,” she says.

Bottom line: The group got started with $45,000 in loans that need to be paid back.

“We probably didn’t go about it the way everybody might,” she says. “We knew the need was immediate. We kind of took a leap of faith because the community has a history of being very strong. Instead of trying to fundraise for a year or two, now — once we’ve got it going — we’re going to go strong and work to pay that off.”

In late December 2009, the group took possession of the building. In February, the group “broke in with our hammers.”

In rides the cavalry

The Powers Lake group wanted its child care facility on the main floor and the future preschool in the basement areas. They wanted the kitchen in the upstairs. All of this meant major surgery for the old dental office, with its nine exam rooms.

“We had a lot of walls to knock down, a kitchen to put in, and sheetrocking,” she says.

They needed help, and they got it.

Arlo Griesbach, a local contractor, offered to help and brought his whole crew in for a few days.

“He’s just very community-minded and supportive of youth programs,” Bullinger says.

An electrician was paid but donated a furnace. The plumber volunteered. CCR&R offered a couple of floor plans, ways to make things “flow,” including space and create activity centers.

Besides construction realities, there were paperwork and regulation challenges. There was the need for egress windows throughout the facility. The Department of Social Services required separate entries for the upstairs child care and the future preschool.

Staffing also was a big challenge. A director for a “group” facility has to have either a Child Development Associate credential, or several years experience in child care.

“We didn’t have a lot of people in town who qualified,” Bullinger says.

But there was Sarah Schultes.

Schultes, in her mid-20s, is a 2000 graduate of a private high school Wolf Point, Mont. She’s married to Isaac Schultes who moved to Powers Lake to ranch in 2004. Sarah had been doing child care in clients’ homes and her own home, and she agreed to direct the new facility and to pursue her CDA by June 2011.

“Sarah was the answer to our prayers,” Bullinger says.

Since March, Schultes has hired has a posse of part-time staffers. Those include parents and a high school person. The staff meets all of the current requirements — training for cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, first aid. Everybody had to have tuberculosis tests, background checks and their fingerprints on file.

“The rules and regulations from start to finish were very much a surprise and a little bit overwhelming,” Bullinger says, adding, “Some of it makes sense.”

The Powers Lake group wanted to open the child care facility in May, but there were blips and delays. It officially opened July 26.

Lil’ Ranchers ride

The license covers children from infant to age 12. The center is open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. There are 20 children enrolled, from ages 1 to 7. Many are part-time, and the limit is 18 at any given time. Because of the business needs, there is a 24-hour weekly minimum charge for full-timers, or a higher “drop-in” rate, for occasional users, like the Bullingers.

As Schultes accumulates training, CCR&R offers bonus materials for the center — program materials and things to decorate the walls.

If child numbers continue to increase, the facility, which is classified as a “group” facility, could expand to be classified into a “center.” That means it could hold more kids, but it also would have more staffing needs. When she gets her CDA, Schultes could qualify as a “director” of a center.

The child care center’s start-up board of 10 people recently condensed to a permanent governing board. The group established a separate board for the preschool. The preschool, which started in January, is in a temporary church basement location. They hope to move that into the Lil’ Ranchers Community Preschool facility by January 2011.

Bullinger is the only common member of the Powers Lake Child Care Association, which does business as the Lil’ Ranchers Community Child Care, and the Powers Lake Preschool Association, which does business as the Lil’ Ranchers Community Preschool.

“We are serving variety of families,” Bullinger says. “Some are working in Powers Lake. We have a lumber yard guy, somebody from the bank, somebody from the vet clinic. We have some business owners, people who work in Main Street. We have a fair number where one of the spouses is related to oil. We have agriculture, of course — one where a dad works for oil companies and they do some farming ranching on the side. We have a nurse at the hospital in Tioga,” N.D.

Bullinger says the process of moving the child care and preschool entities forward are like starting any business.

“As we get through the first few months of operation, we’re finding kinks we need to work out. But the community is super supportive,” she says. “There’s a definite need for this kind of thing. Rural communities around us are struggling with this, too. We’re not alone.”

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