“We are open!”
Those three words from Little Rainbows Early Learning Centre manager Janice Shields seem at once like a relief to say, the culmination of lifetimes of work — but also the beginning of a still-lengthy journey, as a long-overlooked education sector works to keep up with demand.
The 1,500-square-foot infant and toddler-care facility in the new addition at the Rainbow Recreation Centre, just across the lobby from the pool entrance, has been more or less physically complete since early 2022 — a Capital Regional District (CRD) grant-funded project years in the making, itself born from a steady four decades of work by the Gulf Islands Early Learning Society (GIELS) to provide child care for working families.
Shields has been part of those relentless efforts since coming to Salt Spring Island in 1994, specifically to work for the long-running Tree Frog Daycare — Salt Spring’s only space for infant and toddler care when it closed in 2021, another victim of the combined staffing and affordable housing shortages. When the last contractors at Rainbow Road packed up, organizers for Little Rainbows felt those same pressures, according to Shields; despite having a new facility, they were without instructors to operate it.
“For a while we were calling them ‘unicorns,’ you know?” said Shields, recounting the struggle to find early childhood educators (ECEs) to work at Little Rainbows. “A rare breed. But that’s the whole issue with the sector.”
Shields said while funding for ECEs has increased — a provincial average wage of perhaps $23 per hour, she estimated, now bolstered with an addition from government sources of another $6 when working for a nonprofit — it still lags, particularly considering the levels of education and work tempo the positions demand.
And while it feels like the sector has never been so supported, Shields said, people can still make more money doing other things — and without having to go to college.
“I mean we’ve never had a federal and provincial commitment like this to a national system before,” said Shields. “So that is exciting. But we’re not there yet.”
With improved compensation and a concerted hiring campaign, Little Rainbows ultimately brought infants and toddlers into care this year, as those “unicorns” slowly appeared — a sort of “build it and they will come” philosophy, Shields said, with incremental growth. At full enrolment, the capacity will be 12 children; right now, they serve eight.
“We’re two-thirds of our way,” said Shields, adding that with ECEs and ECE assistants currently coming onboard they believe they can serve the full dozen by March. “But we still have 25 families waiting to get in — and we capped the waitlist in the summer, so there’s probably really 50.”
It’s a demand not likely to shrink; on average, Shields said, about 70 to 75 children are born on Salt Spring Island each year. Not all will need care outside the home, she said, but the demand is growing — likely parallel to growth in the island’s cost of living, as the number of families who can financially manage a stay-at-home-parent dwindles.
Of course, children in the infant and toddler program will come and go as family situations change — and the children grow up. Shields said the vision has always been that the Little Rainbows would feed into GIELS programs for older kids as they aged out.
In the meantime, Shields said, the Rainbow Road location has been as good as anyone could have hoped — central for families to drop off and pick up as they go to and from work, and close to Mouat Park and the Farmers’ Institute for quick outings. And despite everyone having to learn on the fly, building a program in many ways from the ground-up, the space has been nearly perfect.
“Just little ‘growing pains’-type things,” chuckled Shields. “Like, you turn the lights off and put the kids to sleep for a nap, but if someone moves, the lights come back on because they were on a sensor!”
The CRD grant provided for the building and essential furniture; other donations, including recent funding from the local 100 Men Who Care group, helped in the final push to get the doors open. Ongoing needs will include early learning resources — developmentally appropriate toys and games to fill the new shelves, said Shields, and a playground sized for Little Rainbows.
“I’m excited we’re seeing these young, enthusiastic educators here,” said Shields. And, she added, government and private donations have also brought the community a wonderful space and the right equipment.
“Shelves, cribs and carpets,” said Shields, smiling broadly as she looked across the room. “Now we need things to put on those shelves, and to play with on those carpets.”
Anyone interested in making financial donations to support Little Rainbows should reach out to Shields at email@example.com, or they can donate directly through GIELS’ website: saltspringearlylearning.ca/donate/p/little-rainbows-donation.