Hershey-based childcare chain U-GRO Learning Centers opened its seventh Lancaster County location this Monday with enhanced cleaning procedures to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new 15,000 square-foot center at West Earl Township is expected to employ up to 32 full- or part-time employees and serve up to 150 infants, toddlers and preschoolers daily, the company wrote in a press release.
The new facility was built by Benchmark Construction, also based in West Earl Township. The building features 10 learning classrooms, a 1,800 square-foot indoor play space and a 12,000 square-foot outdoor playground.
U-GRO’s newest center is the company’s 14th childcare facility.
“We are very excited to bring U-GRO’s expertise in early childhood education to families of the Brownstown, Akron, Ephrata communities and to the Conestoga Valley School District,” said Greg Holsinger, president and CEO of U-GRO.
The company added that while it remains open during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has launched an initiative in all of its centers to enhance cleaning procedures and screen team members and children daily for symptoms of COVID-19
U-GRO said it plans to hold an open house for families by the end of the month for summer and fall enrollment.
Pennsylvania is reportedly in the middle of the pack when it comes to the health of its women and children, with the state seeing a low percentage of uninsured women and substance use disorder among teens but an increase in drug death rates among women and teen suicide over the last year.
The United Health Foundation is a nonprofit established by national insurance agency UnitedHealthcare. The nonprofit has offered its America’s Health Rankings reports for 30 years in topics such as senior health and overall national health.
This latest report utilizes data from sources such as the US Census Bureau, USDA and CDC to rank each state in measures like behaviors, community and environment, policy and clinical care.
“We choose to focus on the health of women, children and infants because we believe that their health is vital,” said Dr. Linda Genen, chief medical director of women’s health at Optum, a pharmacy benefit manager owned by UnitedHealth Group. “Promoting health in children starts with women receiving the care they need in their reproductive years.”
Since 2018, substance use disorder among Pennsylvania’s youth ages 12-17 decreased by 11 percent from 3.6 to 3.2 percent, making Pennsylvania the state with the least number of teens with substance use disorder in the country. Tobacco use decreased even further, moving from 9.1 percent of youths using tobacco products to 5.9 percent.
Genen noted that the data for cigarette use did not include data on e-cigarettes and vapes.
The foundation also reported that teen suicide has increased by 15 percent from 8.2 to 9.4 deaths per 100,000 adolescents. Genen said that Pennsylvania’s rise in teen suicide coincides with the country’s rise in suicide, which increased by 25 percent in 2019.
“Looking at the report, teen suicide is certainly an issue across the country,” she said, adding that the country has to make sure it is asking the right questions related to teen suicide. “What kind of research is out there? How can we help these children and what problems are they facing? Is it lack of support in the home?”
The state ranked 42nd in excessive drinking among women, with 23 percent of women ages 18-44 reporting that they binge drank in the past 30 days or drank more than eight alcoholic beverages a week.
Drug deaths among women are equally as worrying with Pennsylvania at a ranking of 46, highlighting the state’s ongoing battle with the opioid crisis. According to the report, over the past three years, drug related deaths increased by 75 percent from 19.1 to 33.4 deaths per 100,000 females aged 15-44.
On the positive end of the spectrum, only seven percent of women in Pennsylvania are uninsured, making it the eighth state with the most insured women.
Pennsylvania also leads the charge when it comes to women with dedicated health care providers and the percentage of women who took their babies for wellness checkups in 2019.
Within a year, East Lampeter Township-based CHI St. Joseph Children’s Health has gone through an upheaval of services, moving away from dental care as it sees other issues it can tackle in Lancaster County.
This February, the nonprofit organization transitioned from the dental program it ran in the city for 14 years to focus its efforts on children’s behavioral health. At the same time, CHI St. Joseph Children’s Health began planning a food market and a childcare center in Columbia, Lancaster County.
These changes in services may seem like random additions for an organization that once focused solely on dental care. However, the programs all fit into the organization’s strategy of testing different models of care to see if they can be replicated both in and outside Lancaster County, according to Philip Goropoulos, president of CHI St. Joseph.
“We are a dynamic organization that is responding to community need,” Goropoulos said. “We aren’t looking to always be one thing, we are looking at what is needed and that requires some risk taking.”
CHI, or the Catholic Health Initiative, is part of CommonSpirit Health, a Chicago based nonprofit health system with 142 hospitals and 700 care sites in 21 states. Despite its size, Lancaster’s branch of the initiative has benefited from corporate leadership that allows CHI to be flexible with how it solves problems in Lancaster County.
For years, CHI offered dental care through its dental clinics in Columbia and East Lampeter Township for families with Medicaid and the national Children’s Health Insurance Plan. CHI ended the program in March, donating its dental equipment to York-based Family First Health.
When CHI and its Board of Directors first created the dental program, there were no providers taking Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, according to Goropoulos. The decision was made to step away from dental after there were providers who CHI thought could do the same work, if not better.
“There was no reason we couldn’t continue to (offer dental services) but there were other organizations that could do it better and more efficiently and we could expand into other areas where we saw a need,” he said.
After two years of offering behavioral health alongside dental care, CHI switched its focus to the behavioral care space after seeing a lack of it in the region.
“We don’t have enough mental health providers for the number of people that need them and we don’t have enough providers that will do something on a pro bono basis,” said Elaine Ugolnik, board secretary.
CHI leadership decided on a model of care that would look at every facet of a child’s life when deciding on what treatment to use by utilizing a suite of wellness coaches, case managers and therapists.
That model was presented to CHI’s board of directors, which was then given to CHI’s national leaders for review.
“Everything we do is driven by the local board, they identified dental and then they identified behavioral health,” Goropoulos said. “If we could make a business case for it, national supported us.”
CHI has gotten the go ahead on projects more unique than behavioral care with the board approving plans for a $6.4 million child care center that broke ground in May. The St. John Neumann School for Children and Families is another example of the nonprofit finding a need in a local community and finding a creative way to combat it.
The school was born from a need in Columbia for child care in the area with over 400 children and families unable to access services because of cost and lack of availability, according to CHI.
Goropoulos said that CHI was a good fit to create a school in the region that catered to children from 6 weeks and 5 years old because the school could utilize the center to provide meals for children and need and support healthy family dynamics.
“If you look at health outcomes and individuals who have struggled with their health, that can go back to early childhood experiences,” he said.
Despite the initial investment into the new school, CHI doesn’t currently know what its payer mix will look like at the school with a tuition system driven by family income.
“We will budget as if everyone is getting half off their tuition,” Goropoulos said. “We are blessed with an asset base that allows us to take some risk.”
CHI’s board has also approved a plan in November to reopen the Columbia Market House that shuttered its doors in 2017. The partnership with the Columbia Borough would allow for up to 20 vendors at the 15 S. Third St. building along with a 40-seat restaurant.
The market is planned to open in June 2020 and would give Columbia residents easier access to fresh produce and create jobs in the borough’s downtown. Goropoulos said that the market is also planned to have after-market hours where individuals can receive free produce that would have otherwise gone to waste.
While work was underway, the school for infants, toddlers and preschoolers operated in a 7,000-square-foot building owned by the Masonic Village retirement community. The new building, located at the Shrine Road entrance to the community, is 15,260 square feet.
The U-GRO facility also employs about 30 people full-time along with a number of seasonal interns. Its 10 classrooms that can serve up to 148 children, 28 more than in the previous building. It features 10 classrooms and a 2,000 square-foot indoor play area.
U-GRO operates 13 facilities in Lancaster, Dauphin, Lebanon, York and Cumberland and works with more than 1,750 children daily. The school helps children with skills like word, color and shape recognition and expanded motor skills.
“U-GRO Learning Centres sees tremendous potential for serving the greater Elizabethtown community’s needs for exceptional early childhood education,” said Greg Holsinger, president and CEO of U-GRO.
The Elizabethtown facility also offers weekly interaction between Masonic Village residents and U-GRO students. Residents teach students everything from communication skills to gardening, according to Debra Davis, public relations manager for Masonic Villages of Pennsylvania.
“Friendships are formed, and for some residents and children, it may be their only grandparent/grandchild relationship,” Davis said.
The former building will be repurposed into seven new apartments for Masonic Village residents. The conversion is expected to be completed in January 2020. Davis said U-GRO and Masonic have had a positive relationship over the last year.
“We’ve been able to provide a high-quality child care option and accommodate the needs of our staff, residents and the local community,” she said.
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