“I love where I live, and I want the place where I live to survive, thrive, and grow so that my kids have the opportunity to benefit from the same type of experiences I’ve had living in a rural community,” says Adam Alson, a third-generation resident of Rensselaer, IN. “Having high-quality early childhood education available in the community is necessary to make that possible, because it’s the only way to keep people here and to attract young families. But addressing shortages is a complex problem.”
In a Nutshell
What: Through a partnership between a nonprofit – Appleseed Childhood Education – and a health system – Franciscan Health – a rural community in Indiana is addressing two needs simultaneously by increasing access to quality early childhood education, which is expected to help recruit and retain qualified health care professionals at a local hospital while supporting the town’s ability to grow by attracting young families. The partnership serves as a model for other rural communities facing similar challenges.
Sector: Early Childhood Education
Location: Rensselaer, IN
Size: 7,500 square feet
Cost: $1 million
Funding & Financing Sources: IFF and a capital campaign, with key contributions from the Jasper Newton Foundation; Jasper County, IN; the Rensselaer Redevelopment Corporation, and a myriad of local businesses and individual donors
IFF Support: Site search and due diligence, helping Appleseed find a location and visualize their concept; owner’s representation, helping manage the design and construction process; $350,000 bridge loan closed in October 2022
IFF Staff Leads: Amandula Anderson, Managing Director, Real Estate Solutions – Indiana; Donna Sink, Senior Owner’s Representative; Andre Gibson, Director of Lending – Indiana and Kentucky; Ashanti Bryant, Director of Early Childhood Services
Architect: Zager Architecture
General Contractor/Construction Manager: Tonn and Blank
Impact: 73 ECE slots created
Though speaking specifically about his hometown – population 5,733 – Alson’s comments point to the stark challenges rural communities throughout the United States face in trying to sustain and expand the availability of a resource that’s labor- and resource-intensive but essential to the long-term viability of communities. That’s why it’s especially notable that early next year, Rensselaer will celebrate the grand opening of a new, 7,500-square-foot early childhood education (ECE) center that will be the first licensed ECE option for families in the community since 2018.
The result of community-wide collaboration, a unique partnership between a startup nonprofit and a regional health system – Franciscan Health – and support from IFF and a multitude of additional partners, the new ECE center will provide 73 children ages five and under with quality child care and education five days a week, year-round. In addition to bolstering the early learning ecosystem in the community, the center is also expected to strengthen Franciscan Health’s ability to recruit and keep highly qualified medical professionals in the area – addressing another major challenge faced by rural communities nationwide.
Spearheading the effort to develop the new ECE center is Appleseed Childhood Education (Appleseed), a grassroots nonprofit with a mission to marshal the resources and expertise needed for the community to provide quality early education for its children. And leading Appleseed is Alson, who serves as the board president and whose family’s experience served as the catalyst for the facility project that’s now underway.
After leaving a career in New York City as a bond trader, Alson returned to Rensselaer to take over the family farm. Soon marrying and having a son, Alson and his wife, Carlee Tressel Alson, needed help with child care and sent their one-year-old to the local ECE center. Though skeptical of how much benefit the center would provide, the Alsons quickly realized the value of quality ECE as they watched their son thrive.
When the center succumbed to financial challenges and closed in 2018, it was a significant loss that spurred the Alsons to begin exploring how quality ECE could be provided in the community in a sustainable way. What began as informal conversations soon transformed into an organized effort bringing together parents, volunteers, business owners, and other community stakeholders committed to increasing access to quality ECE in the rural community – culminating with Appleseed’s founding in early 2020.
Recognizing that the group’s members didn’t have the expertise to provide ECE directly, Appleseed instead decided to create the community infrastructure necessary for quality early learning to take place in Rensselaer, to recruit a qualified provider to the community to run the center’s day-to-day programming, and to commit to funding the center’s operations long-term through private and public fundraising – a necessity given the financial realities inherent in providing quality ECE.
For the next year, Appleseed searched for a space in the community that could serve as an ECE center, finding that the stock of commercial buildings in the rural community provided limited options. After discovering IFF through a Google search, it was at this point that Appleseed turned to our real estate team in Indiana to help support the search for a site – which included exploring the feasibility of building new vs. renovating.
In an example of IFF’s continuum in practice, real estate support was supplemented by guidance from IFF Director of Early Childhood Services Ashanti Bryant, who worked with Appleseed to refine its approach for the center and to identify Lafayette, IN-based Right Steps Child Development Centers as the provider who would run the center’s programming. With more than 50 years of experience, Right Steps is an accredited provider that operates seven ECE centers in the region.
All the while, Appleseed built a local coalition of support by sharing the organization’s plans to bring quality ECE back to Rensselaer widely with members of the community. Doing so was a critical component of Appleseed’s success in finding a facility that met its needs, as it led the organization to Franciscan Health by way of an introduction from the Jasper Newton Foundation – a local philanthropic organization the IFF team encouraged Appleseed to build a relationship with while conducting the site search.
“We had an administrative building on our campus in Rensselaer that was underutilized because of our shift to electronic medical records, and after the pandemic began and much of our administrative staff began working remotely, the building was mostly empty,” says Franciscan Health COO Carlos Vasquez. “Empty space doesn’t do anything for anybody and selling the facility wasn’t in our best interests, and so I called the Foundation to see if they knew of any local groups looking for space.”
We need qualified health care professionals to move here, and being able to offer quality child care and early learning on the campus where those professionals can see their kids on their lunch break is going to be an appealing option.
Within weeks, Alson and other members of the Appleseed team had toured the facility, which was built in 2008 and remained in pristine condition. So, too, was its location ideal. Sitting on the hospital’s campus, which is located on a main thoroughfare in Rensselaer near other community resources, the facility is in a convenient location for residents that remains protected from traffic and safe for young children.
And with a partner in Vazquez who recognized the importance of quality ECE to the community, understood the value that a licensed ECE center on the hospital’s campus would provide to the health system’s employees, and was willing to advocate tirelessly for Appleseed’s vision at the highest levels of the health system’s decision-making apparatus, the nonprofit’s goal to bring quality ECE back to Rensselaer was finally within reach.
“Franciscan Health has not been in the business of leasing space on our properties to meet a community need like the one that exists for quality early learning in Rensselaer, and there were many barriers that had to be overcome while working out all of the details,” adds Vazquez. “Ultimately, though, it fits our mission as a Catholic health system, and the benefits to the community and to our employees will be tangible. We need qualified health care professionals to move here, and being able to offer quality child care and early learning on the campus where those professionals can see their kids on their lunch break is going to be an appealing option. It was up to us to sharpen our pencils and figure out how to get this done in a way that will ensure that the center is a long-term asset in Rensselaer.”
In addition to offering Appleseed a long-term lease for the facility at well below market rate, Franciscan Health’s commitment to the nonprofit included an offer to handle building maintenance and the upkeep of the property. This will further reduce the operating costs for the ECE center once open, which is vital to its sustainability since Appleseed anticipates the need to raise $300,000 per year in donations to keep the center open. Additional support from the health system will include the provision of meals prepared on the hospital’s campus and connectivity to hospital services like a staff nutritionist.
“We’re still a new organization and don’t have $50,000 that we can set aside in a reserve in case the HVAC system goes out in the middle of the winter or the building needs a new roof,” says Alson. “Not having to worry about the unforeseen is massive for us, and it means we can devote our resources right now to opening the center and strengthening our financial position. That’s possible only because we have such a strong partner in Franciscan Health.”
Providing high-quality early learning in rural areas is a multifaced challenge that requires far more than just throwing money at the problem. There also has to be infrastructure and buy-in and coordination to make this happen.
Having already secured significant funding commitments from the Jasper Newton Foundation, county government, City of Rensselaer, U.S. Department of Agriculture, multiple corporations in the region, local businesses, and a myriad of individual donors, Appleseed is well on its way to doing exactly that. To accelerate the development of the new ECE center, IFF provided a $350,000 loan to the nonprofit that enabled renovations to the leased facility to begin in early September.
Carrying out the work is general contractor Tonn and Blank, which is executing a plan for the revamped facility designed by Zager Architecture, itself a local business. IFF’s real estate team in Indiana is supporting the buildout of the facility by serving as the owner’s representative for the project. Though still several months from opening its doors, the ECE center already has a waitlist – a testament to the demand for quality early learning in Rensselaer and surrounding communities.
Having reached the verge of achieving a long-term goal borne of a desire to bolster the community’s outlook for years to come and overcoming numerous challenges along the way, Appleseed is hopeful that its experience can serve as a model for rural areas elsewhere in the Midwest and beyond.
“Providing high-quality early learning in rural areas is a multifaced challenge that requires far more than just throwing money at the problem,” Alson explains. “There also has to be infrastructure and buy-in and coordination to make this happen. We want this project to be proof of concept of community partners coming together to address a need in a comprehensive way.”