Mount Holyoke College inks deal for Gorse Children’s Center

  • Students walk to the Mount Holyoke College Blanchard Campus Center on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • About 150 people rally March 8 on the Mount Holyoke College campus in South Hadley to urge college officials to keep the Gorse Children’s Center open long-term. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/27/2022 9:24:54 PM
Modified: 1/27/2022 9:23:36 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Nearly a year after backtracking on a controversial plan to close its on-campus child care center, Mount Holyoke College announced on Wednesday that it has selected a new child care provider.

In an announcement, the college said that it has chosen the Holyoke-based Valley Opportunity Council to provide child care at its Gorse Children’s Center beginning July 1.

“Their mission, which is to support children and families in the area in a range of important ways, including childcare, housing and other support services, aligns with the commitment we have to educational access and affordability, and to supporting parents in the workplace,” college President Sonya Stephens said in a statement.

The decision comes less than a year after the college announced last February that it would be shutting down the beloved Gorse Children’s Center, drawing an outcry from families who were left scrambling to find alternatives.

Soon after, the college changed course and said that the center would remain open for another year. Some 150 people then turned up to protest on campus, calling on Mount Holyoke to make a longer-term commitment beyond a one-year contract extension the college had signed until June 2022 with current child care provider Bright Horizons.

The college’s decision to contract with Valley Opportunity Council will mean that on-campus child care will indeed continue beyond June. College spokesperson Christian Feuerstein declined to say how long the school’s contract is with Valley Opportunity Council, though the organization’s Executive Director Steve Huntley said it was a five-year deal.

In an interview Thursday, Huntley said that, as he understands it, Bright Horizons did not accept vouchers or subsidies from families. That’s something that Valley Opportunity Council — an organization dedicated to helping people maintain or achieve self-sufficiency — is committed to doing, he said.

“We will be offering vouchers and we’ll be offering subsidies for families that just couldn’t afford it under the regular price tag,” Huntley said. “We hope we’re going to be integrating some of the lower-income workers around the community that just couldn’t afford their sticker price.”

Huntley said that his organization is excited about the possibility of offering low-income families more of an opportunity in South Hadley, adding that kids who attend programs like those that VOC provides are more ready to attend kindergarten and go on to become leaders in their classrooms.

“We believe, and we share this belief with Mount Holyoke College, that a diverse experience for children, economically and racially, is a more robust experience,” Huntley said.

This will be the first child care center that Valley Opportunity Council operates in South Hadley. The organization has five centers in Holyoke and Chicopee, as well as home educators who work in the region, including in South Hadley.

In her statement, Stephens said that its decision was the result of extensive work by the college’s Childcare Review Group, which surveyed those on campus and in the wider community about their child care needs, paying attention to both quality and affordability of care.

Other aspects the college said it considered were the organization’s ability to maintain and expand the child care program, willingness to accept subsidies and state vouchers, ability to collaborate with the college’s academic programs and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Under the new program, the center will continue to serve children from six-weeks old to five, as well as providing before-school and after-school care.

In the wake of the college’s initial decision to close the Gorse Children’s Center early last year, a coalition of families and community members came together to form the Gorse Action Group. Members called on the college to include them in the planning process going forward, noting that it wasn’t the first time the college had considered closing the center. The group highlighted the importance of accessible and inclusive child care for working mothers in particular.

Efforts to reach leaders of that protest movement were unsuccessful Thursday.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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