By Katy Savage
After her children suddenly lost child care, Caroline Olsen decided to start her own facility in Woodstock.
Olsen, who owns the Nutty Life, an organic plant-based milk company, with her husband Craig Olsen, plans to open her their nonprofit, The Mill School, in June in the same East Woodstock business complex that houses Nutty Life.
Olsen said the idea started to form when she and her husband made the difficult decision to pull one of their children, now 4, out of Rainbow Playschool in Woodstock in March of 2022 due to personal issues. After filing complaints against the center for these issues, their daughter, now 2, was subsequently kicked out in June of 2022 after her room was temporarily closed earlier in the year.
Olsen’s complaints with the state alleged her child was dismissed without proper warning. She complained that Rainbow failed to accommodate her child’s severe garlic and sesame seed allergy And, she said the school was non-compliant with the proper student-to-teacher ratio, according to a public records request.
Olsen brought her complaints to the Department of Children and Families last March, which led to a site visit and state investigation. Rainbow was cited for operating out of ratio for two days in April 2022 but the investigation found no wrongdoing with the nut allergy, according to documents obtained through a public records request.
“It was determined that the program was nut free upon enrollment, and continued to be nut free, and did make modifications related to the sesame and garlic allergy,” Licensing Field Specialist Bridget Sheldrick wrote in a June 2022 email.
Attempts to reach Leah Segrin, the director of Rainbow Playschool, weren’t successful.
Olsen said her issues with Rainbow are ongoing, but she wanted to turn her negative experience into something positive.
“We want to create a place where everybody is welcome and we can accommodate everybody,” Olsen said.
Olsen has been holding childcare in her home for her three children, ages 4 months old, 2 and 4 with nanny Amanda Barry, a former Rainbow School employee, since early last year.
“It’s not ideal for us because we’re using that as our office, too, sometimes,” Olsen said.
Olsen said her issue with Rainbow is a symptom of a larger problem. If children are difficult to handle, they risk being kicked out or pushed out because childcare centers have long waiting lists.
“There’s a mentality, I think, in childcare centers right now where we don’t care about your child because there’s 50 other parents on the waiting list and so we don’t have to deal with this, with you, because we can just fill your spot with somebody else,” Olsen said.
Devyn Workman, a special educator at the Prosper School, started bringing his child to Olsen’s house last July after running into a similar situation. His child was kicked out of Bridgewater Community Center after 21 days. Workman said his daughter had separation anxiety and cried during the day.
Workman, who runs the Windsor Central Supervisory Union summer program, said he was suddenly informed via email that his child wouldn’t be able to return to daycare. Workman brought his daughter to work with him until he met Olsen in an online group chat.
“I always joke about that — we’re the misfits,” Workman said. “All of our kids have been kicked out of childcare.”
Bridgewater Community Childcare Director Kristiana Birmingham declined to comment on Workman’s dismissal, citing privacy reasons.
“I would need written permission from his family to speak about any child,” she said.
Birmingham said the childcare center has 30-40 families on the waiting list.
Bridgewater is currently licensed for 14 children and is in the process of expanding to accommodate another 24 kids by December.
“I know a lot of people who still go to that childcare and they’re very happy,” Workman said. “I don’t want to downplay that.”
But, spots are limited.
“I have colleagues who haven’t been able to come back because they can’t find daycare,” he said.
Workman will be part of the three-member board at the Mill School, to include Olsen’s husband and a third non-parent. Like Olsen, Workman said the new facility will accommodate students deemed difficult.
“Our mission of being able to support any and all kids, especially with my background in special ed — that’s important to me as an educator and as a parent,” Workman said.
Barry, who is in the process of taking over managerial responsibilities, has never led a childcare center, but has worked with children for 15 years. She’s a licensed level one instructor, currently working on educational requirements to become level two certified.
“Amanda is very creative,” Workman said. “They’re often doing field trips and projects — things she doesn’t necessarily need to do to be a nanny.”
Olsen estimates it will cost about $220,000 to open the new facility. She won a $15,000 Startup Woodstock competition and she’s seeking a $90,000 grant from the Economic Development Commission. She has a $12,000 pot of money for families in need of financial aid.
“Caroline is a total powerhouse,” Workman said. “I feel optimistic and hopeful with her being the head of the ship here.”
Olsen and Workman have been promoting the new facility through word of mouth. So far, there are 44 kids on the waiting list.
“We joke around that you need to tell the childcare facility you’re pregnant before you tell your family so you’re on the list and ready to go,” Olsen said.
The Mill will be able to accommodate 17 children, ages 6 weeks to 3 years old, with a director and four full-time staff. Olsen said starting pay for teachers is $20 — higher than neighboring child care centers, which pay teachers $17 an hour to start. It will cost parents $84 a day for students — about $15 higher than other area providers.
“Our tuition is based on a break-even point,” she said.
Olsen, who has a finance background, will be the business manager and substitute teacher when needed. “Because of our higher pay, we’ve attracted enough staff to come work for us,” she said.
The future school, in the Mill business complex in East Woodstock, is a former artist’s gallery. Olsen plans to make minor renovations to the open-concept space to install a small kitchen and bathroom. There will also be a separate room for infants.
The Economic Development Commission awarded Bridgewater Community Childcare, The Community Campus, Rainbow Playschool and Woodstock Christian Childcare $330,000 in grants last January after an application process. The investment is expected to bring another 80 daycare spaces for infants through 5-year-old children.
The EDC is scheduled to meet again on April 6 to vote on awarding Olsen the grant.