By Melinda Munson

Little Dippers Learning Center opened for the first time since last season, with a Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. schedule. It’s a huge improvement over last year when the center struggled to find staff and could only provide care from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., often being forced to close on Fridays.

Skagway Child Care Council (SCCC) Board President Eliza Russell said the board was able to return to pre-pandemic hours, in part, by extensive recruiting, offering higher wages and providing housing.

Started in 1987, Little Dippers is a state licensed non-profit overseen by SCCC. Although they lease a municipal building, they are not associated with the municipality. Dippers was traditionally a seasonal center until Mighty Munchkins closed in 2022, leaving just one year-round daycare with a waitlist. In response, Dippers attempted to stay open through the winter of 2022, but insufficient staff forced the learning center to shutter.

“While lack of childcare might not be the sole reason some families left this winter, I suspect it is a large contributing factor,” Russell said. 

Now, with the help of SCCC, Little Dippers Administrator Kerri Raia and Director Mallory Bigeloware are responsible for getting the center up and running, designed (for now) to serve ages 0-6.

Raid said this entails a lot of state paperwork and preparing the building for the children.

“We really try to make all of our activities intentional,” Raia said, adding that Dippers is a screen free environment. She described the center as a pre-preschool for the toddlers. “We’re really just trying to help the children become familiar with school before they go to school,” Raia said. 

Russell said that while most of SCCC’s resources are devoted to supporting Little Dippers, they are working to increase their reach. 

“People don’t realize that Skagway Child Care Council is the broad umbrella and ideally, we would love to do more for the community involved in child care, not just Little Dippers Learning Center,” Russell said. 

SCCC is compiling a community summer camp calendar, available mid March, which lists costs, ages range and dates. They hope to offer a watershed outreach camp this summer. 

Resolution 22-15R offers two $100,000 grants for individuals who start a licensed daycare with at least 10 children. So far, no one has applied. Russell thinks SCC could hold a seminar to educate interested parties about the “challenging” process. She stressed that SCCC is always available to answer questions and provide resources.

Little Dippers is currently accepting new enrollment. According to Russell, two new teachers will join the staff in March.

“We are really wanting to provide what the community parents need,” Russell said. “With over three decades of experience, our institution has become an integral part of the community…”