BRATTLEBORO — Restructuring at the Brattleboro Retreat required a quick but effortful response from the community to keep Mulberry Bush Independent School running.
A deal finalized around mid-December put the program in the hands of Horizon Early Learning Program, which is owned by Mel Zinn.
“We’re excited to keep this program’s doors open and grow it,” said Cathy Siggins, Mulberry Bush’s new director.
She’s been involved in early education in Brattleboro since the early 2000s. Her roles have included teaching, mentoring, advocacy and leadership.
Siggins also handled early interventions at Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development under Chloe Learey, executive director of the center. Learey, chairwoman of the local Child Care Counts Coalition, was involved in finding a way to keep Mulberry Bush open.
For Siggins, child care is not about warehousing children. She said it’s “an essential need” for children to receive care and be nurtured. She described Mulberry Bush being consistent and highly valued under former director Tori Kelliher and Retreat ownership.
“I think that families deserve to have their children in places they feel good about when they’re at work and Mulberry Bush really provided that and I want to continue to provide that,” she said. “I really value the continuity of community-based programs for families because children and families need to have quality early education and care that is grounded in the community they live in.”
Around Thanksgiving, Siggins began transitioning out of a full-time position as education coordinator at the Head Start Early Education Services program in Westminster. Getting Mulberry Bush running under new ownership was “an enormous project,” she said.
“It’s essentially starting a new program.” she said. “Mel’s been amazing and the community’s been amazing.”
Her official start was last week. The program is licensed for 59 slots and currently has 29 filled.
Enrollment is lower due to the coronavirus pandemic as more members of families are working from home and don’t need care, Siggins said. Mulberry Bush’s school-age program and summer camp for school-age children will continue.
Siggins hopes to have more details by February on plans to have “collaborative classrooms” with Head Start based at Mulberry Bush. The idea is to start with at least one classroom then add more over time.
Five staff members have decided to stay at Mulberry Bush while others have chosen to retire. Four new teachers were hired.
Zinn said when the program reopens Jan. 6, each classroom will have a familiar face to children and families. A couple of teachers who are leaving are going to help with the transition for the first few weeks.
“People have been really supportive and flexible about making this work for children and families,” Siggins said.
She said the Retreat assisted by making the building ready to be rented and Retreat CEO Louis Josephson has been helpful in the transition. She described being impressed with the way the community rallied around the project with support from Winston Prouty, Learey, Zinn, Brattleboro Centre for Children and the Windham Early Childhood Educators Co-op.
For help with start-up costs, Learey said the Turrell Fund provided money to cover hiring a director and rent.
“We hope to get more funds so the rent can be covered for the first six months, with the goal of full enrollment and sustainability by June 2021,” she said.
Saving the programThe Retreat announced Oct. 23 it would be ending several programs and laying off 85 workers by the end of December. The following Monday, Zinn reached out to Kelliher and began figuring out how to take over the child care program.
Zinn, who already runs a child care center in Brattleboro, wanted to use her business entity to save the program and keep the Mulberry Bush in the name. It’s now called Mulberry Bush Early Learning Program.
Zinn said her lawyer’s office and the Retreat’s lawyer came up with an agreement reached Dec. 8, signed Dec. 16 and confirmed by the Retreat two days later.
“We just made sure everything was kosher and going to work as far as renting space,” Zinn said, adding that Josephson has been “spot on” with connecting her team with the head of facilities.
Zinn looks forward to the program being close to Retreat Farm and the nearby trail network.
Kelliher is credited with pointing Zinn toward Siggins as a potential program director. Kelliher also is among the staff staying on for the start of the transition.
“We all just worked as a team to consider every angle,” Zinn said. “Cathy’s been great to bring on.”
Siggins was named Vermont Early Educator of the Year in 2012. Six years later, the honor went to Zinn.
Zinn believes the pair will keep accomplishing good things after the initial goal.
“It’s about saving Mulberry Bush and making sure there’s a continuity of care, that people don’t lose jobs if they’re not ready to move on,” she said. “It’s amazing these 29 families aren’t going to lose child care.”
Zinn said after the pandemic is over, she knows more child care slots will be needed in the community.
A bright spot
Josephson is hopeful enrollment will bounce back. He estimated about 10 families of Retreat staff have opted to stay in the program.
“Mel Zinn and Horizon have been really professional in trying to continue our high quality standards there,” he said. “I’m pretty confident they’re going to do a good job.”
Siggins “seems really strong,” Josephson said. Learey “was an incredibly helpful resource for us. She’s so plugged into the early learning child care community statewide but certainly locally and she helped literally broker the deal. She’s just a wise and caring person.”
This isn’t the first time the Retreat has leased campus space to other groups. And Josephson isn’t ruling out any future agreements, although it’s not something the mental health and addictions hospital is actively pursuing.
“We’re a health care entity so privacy and all those things have to line up,” Josephson said. “We had a child care center there so long, it was just easy to keep going in that way.”
A medication-assisted program for opioid addiction also ended at the Retreat. Josephson said patients are either going to programs out of primary care offices his group continues to support or Habit OPCO in Brattleboro.
“I think that was complete as of Christmas day, all of the patients were accounted for,” he said. “I think everything went remarkably well.”
State agencies also supported what Josephson called a “team effort.”
“I was anxious about that population,” he said, adding that he pledged not to stop the program until there was a “warm handoff for each and every single person.”
Restructuring has been “a really difficult process,” Josephson said. Last week brought about the end of service for many employees and the programs.
“It’s a tough moment but it did achieve financial savings we were looking to achieve so that helps our overall sustainability, but it’s hard,” Josephson said. “We serve a lot of people with high needs and it’s not easy to do these things, but it achieves the goals we set out for the organization.”
While the Retreat has dealt with challenges, Josephson called the agreement with Horizon “a real bright spot.”
“I’m trying to hang on to that feeling,” he said, “because the other stuff is much harder.”