Children’s Square USA’s Children’s Center is celebrating the start of its 50th year of caring for children from the community.
During that time, the center has grown, reached out with satellite locations and touched the lives of thousands of children.
The center currently has 82 children and 14 teachers between its primary location on the Children’s Square campus and a satellite center in the former Washington Elementary School, said Sandra Kittle, acting supervisor of early childhood education. The number swells to more than 100 during the summer.
All of the children are from the community at large, not from the shelter or cottages operated by Children’s Square, according to Carol Wood, president and CEO of the nonprofit organization. Clients pay tuition, with some receiving government assistance.
The Children’s Center was launched on Oct. 13, 1969 by Gertrude Chittenden, then director of child development, in what is now the Lemen Visitor Center, Wood said. It quickly became one of the first certified child care centers in Council Bluffs.
“It wasn’t just day care, it was child development,” she said. “From the beginning, it was a very robust program.”
In fact, to emphasize its focus on education, Children’s Square later registered the term “Educare,” Wood said.
“It’s a matter of having a professional staff, well paid and trained and supports wrapped around those children,” she said.
The Children’s Center started with 20 children – all 3- and 4-year-olds – in two rooms and expanded to three rooms to hold 55 children in 1972, she said. It later traded places with the administrative offices in the old brick building that currently houses it, where it eventually expanded to 78 children. A toddler playground was added in 1981.
The center “answered a need,” Wood said.
“It was right at a time when women were … entering the workforce,” she said. “Across all the years, that’s been evaluated from time to time, and we’ve chosen to keep that in our continuum of care.”
The percentage of families with both parents working increased from 25 percent in 1960 to 60 percent in 1990, said Becky Snedeker, director of the center from 1987 to 2012, although she was taking on other responsibilities toward the end of that time. A lot of grandparents were working, too, she said.
Children’s Square held weekly staff development sessions during her tenure, she said.
In 1988, Children’s Square opened a before- and after-school program in a small house across from its main campus, Snedeker said. The center began offering infant care in 1989 and now offers care for children from 6 weeks until they start kindergarten.
The center has had its ups and downs. In August 1990, Children’s Square opened a child care center in the federal courthouse in Omaha, Snedeker said. Then, on April 19, 1995, a bomb was set off at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Security was tightened at federal buildings across the country and later at many other government facilities.
“We had to be fingerprinted as employees in a federal building, and (to do that) we had to go upstairs where the prisoners were,” Snedeker said.
Children’s Square now fingerprints all Children’s Center employees, said Lucinda Klein-Lombardo, director of education.
The Omaha facility did have occasional bomb threats during the wake of the event, Snedeker said. In addition, there were sometimes protesters outside the building during Desert Storm.
In the late 1990s, during the trial of Timothy McVeigh, the primary suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing, it was revealed that he had considered blowing up the federal building in Omaha, Snedeker said. Children’s Square’s child care program in the federal building lost the most children of any federal child care center as a result.
“We kept it open,” Wood said. “We thought it would rebound, and it did. But then 9/11 happened. Parents were just scared.”
The program in the federal building closed on Jan. 28, 2006.
Children’s Center numbers peaked at about 150 between 2009 and 2015, when it operated a satellite center at First Christian Church. The arrangement was made while the Rev. Dave Erickson was senior pastor of the church and a member of the Children’s Square Board of Directors. In 2015, the church was experiencing growth and decided it needed the space, so Children’s Square officials looked around and, on Sept. 15, 2015, opened an outreach site at the former Washington Elementary. That facility has been used to care for preschoolers, which have numbered about 30 in recent weeks.
“It’s always been a challenge having two centers because of staffing,” Wood said. “Tuition doesn’t cover the cost – we’ve chosen to continue that program because we believe it’s so important.”
Over the years, the center has been accredited by the Joint Commission, Council of Accreditation of Children and Family Services and National Academy of Early Childhood Education. Since the Council of Accreditation became nationally recognized, the center has concentrated on maintaining accreditation from that organization.