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New childcare center set to open in Door County in 2024

The owners of Children First Development Center hope to help address rising childcare needs on Wisconsin’s peninsula

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January 9, 2024

STURGEON BAY – As waitlists for child care around the state continue to climb, two women entrepreneurs are doing their part to help address the need in Door County.

Kayla Lehman and Lorie Torbeck are in the planning stages of opening The Children First Development Center, Inc. in summer 2024.

And though it hasn’t opened its doors, parents are optimistically adding their children to the center’s waitlist in preparation.

A meant-to-be partnership
Lehman, who will serve as the center’s administrator, said the unexpected personal challenges of finding childcare served as inspiration for the new endeavor.

Though her oldest attended Door County Child Development Center (DCCDC), she had two more children at home that would soon need care and her options were very limited.

“My two boys, three and a half and almost two, had been home with me full-time for about a year while I managed my husband’s electrical contracting business,” he said. “It was overwhelming, to say the least, and we needed to find childcare for the boys.”

With long waitlists locally, Lehman said she was unsure if she would find openings.

“Waitlists were two-plus years at both group facilities (in the area) and private in-home care, so it was feeling hopeless,” she said. “There is a desperate need for childcare in Sturgeon Bay and surrounding communities.”

Lehman said little did she know, her childcare struggles would lead to her developing a business partnership with Torbeck, who had once been Lehman’s son’s teacher at DCCDC.

Kayla Lehman said the unexpected personal challenges she was experiencing finding child care for her boys served as inspiration for her partnership with Lorie Torbeck. Submitted Photo

“We began discussing the lack of child care in our community and the desperate need for additional group care,” Lehman said. “It led us to talking about opening a group center.”

Lehman said with her business skills and Torbeck’s 50 years of experience in childcare, plus a degree in early childhood development, they had all the necessary tools to begin transforming a possibility into a reality.

Putting children first 
Both Lehman and Torbeck – who will serve as the center’s director – said they immediately got to work planning, with their first goal being to nail down a name.

Lehman said not only will the center provide reliable care for children, but it will also serve as a creative space for them to play, laugh, grow and thrive.

“In child care, the children’s wellbeing and development should truly come first thus, Children First,” she said.

The business partners met with the United Way of Door County, the Door Community Foundation and other community partners, where Lehman said they received “lots of great feedback and guidance.”

With the name set and a business plan written, up next, Lehman said, was a location.

The Door County YMCA has agreed to sell the former Barker Center property at 1743 Egg Harbor Road to Children First.

With DCCDC moving to its expanded facility on Gordon Road, the facility will become vacant in late February – perfect timing for Children First, Lehman said.

“The facility allows us to start serving children and families the quickest, with the least updates required of any property in Door County,” she said. “We are beyond excited and thankful that the YMCA is giving us this opportunity.”

Lehman said there is a lot of work to be done before the sale is finalized and doors are opened to families.

Children First has launched a fundraising campaign to raise $750,000, which will cover the purchase of the property, construction updates to the facility, as well as equipment and materials needed for the facility to become licensed.

Lehman said the United Way of Door County is serving as fiscal sponsor for Children First until 501(c)(3) status is granted and is accepting donations on behalf of Children First.

Preparations underway
Torbeck said Children First plans to provide care for 76 children – aged six weeks to four years – and already has a waitlist of more than 45 children. 

“Adding another licensed, quality child care center is going to not only positively impact the children we care for, but it will be a huge sigh of relief to families, especially those just trying to provide basic needs for their families,” she said. “Our community employers are going to see a boost in the workforce. Employees will not only be able to perform their jobs, they will also be more productive knowing their child(ren) are well cared for.”

Now that a location has been secured and the fundraising campaign is underway, the pair said they are busy planning for everything else that is needed.

“Lorie has been extremely busy putting together lists of furniture, equipment, learning materials and toys, etc. needed in each room,” Lehman said.

She said they will soon share a list of needs with the public for anyone interested in helping.

“We live in a very loving and generous community that fully understands the financial challenges to starting and running a childcare center,” Lehman said. “To keep our tuition rates affordable, we will need support from our community to get started.”

Apart from the business side of preparations, Lehman said both she and Torbeck are busy with additional training to complement their current knowledge, while also developing engagement opportunities for the children.

“Lorie is well versed in sign language, and I can attest to what a help that is with toddlers that can’t form words yet,” Lehman. “She has the biggest passion for helping children grow to be their best selves.”

Plans for the center
Lehman said the center plans to continuously connect with parents to keep them informed about their child’s day, including projects, well-being and accomplishments. 

The duo also plans to introduce a concept called, “loose parts,” into their daily routines to promote creativity and problem-solving skills.

The concept, Lehman said, revolves around giving children an assortment of age-appropriate items that aren’t necessarily toys to interact with – this could include pine cones, tape rolls, poker chips and other items from everyday life.

Kayla Lehman said children at the center will have the opportunity to play with traditional toys – such as puzzles – as well as “loose parts” – such as pine cones – to help promote creativity and problem-solving skills. Submitted Photo

“The benefit is allowing the children to lead with their imaginations and ultimately growing their imaginations,” she said.

Torbeck and Lehman said they have already been piloting the concept with their own children.

“The boys had the bright idea of taking bright color balls, placing them onto funnels, and pretending to serve ice cream cones,” Lehman said. “They had an absolute blast and spent double the amount of time they had spent prior with replica ice cream cone sets.”

Lehman said the center will of course also have traditional classics, such as blocks, manipulatives, puzzles, and dolls, too, “but we’ll also be bringing ‘loose parts’ into classrooms and outside play areas to watch imaginations blossom.”

Gearing up to open
Torbeck and Lehman said they are both excited about their new venture and even more excited to offer a much-needed service to families in the Door County area.

The center, Lehman said, also looks to help individuals who are interested in a career in early childhood development as they look to expand their team.

“We are also accepting applications for teachers and support staff… and through a partnership with United Way of Door County and Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, individuals can have their schooling completely paid for,” she said.

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