How did a little blue daycare put Dawson City on the map for early childhood education? By an employee winning the Prime Minister’s Award for excellence in early childhood education earlier this month!

Stephanie Davidson is the supervisor and pre-school teacher at the Dawson Childcare Center, and founder of the Kindeready program, which prepares pre-schoolers for kindergarten through play, music and social interaction.

Former Dawson Childcare Association (DCA) president Megan Waterman nominated Davidson for the award in a 50-page application full of praise from parents, along with several letters of support from members of the community.

“Stephanie works well with the community, kids and people in general,” says Waterman. “She stands out. She always goes over and above to help the board and the centre – she really does shine.”

In a way, Waterman adds, this award reflects the story of the centre over the past year and a half.

Created in 1979 by a group of parents, Rev. Dan Meakes of the Anglican Church and the Klondike Visitor Association, the centre has seen its enrolment fluctuate with the number of pre-school children available.

But in 2009, the centre found itself in trouble. Enrolment was at a record low. For a non-profit association that depends on Yukon government financing per child enrolled, the number of kids is vital for financial health.

Coupled with a decrease in fundraising efforts and a volunteer board that was ready to move on, the centre’s future looked dire.

According to Waterman, “The board just didn’t have the capacity to find solutions.” The idea of closing down became a potential reality.

A meeting was called in January 2010 to advise parents of the situation and the possibility of closure. Parents were urged to rally behind the cause, and they did, with a vengeance.

A temporary board of parents and community members was formed until a permanent board could be elected at the AGM later that year.

The battle to save the little blue daycare had begun.

Until that point, a director had handled the day-to-day running of the centre, with the board acting in an advisory capacity regarding the bigger financial and policy picture.

The new board decided that moving toward financial stability would require a radical restructuring. The director position was phased out, all staff were laid off to save money, and the advisory board became a “hands-on” board.

Board members each assumed tasks to help run the centre. Two previous board members, as well as a community expert on childhood education, stayed on as advisors while the new board set about learning finances, grant applications, fundraising and government childcare regulations.

The centre also opened an infant section to increase enrolment.

“That first year was very hard,” says Marie-Claude Dufresne, the board’s vice president. “We had to learn about everything.”

Christine Robert, president, and Andrea Oppen, treasurer, say some difficult decisions had to be made in order to pay off debts and become financially viable.

“It was a huge learning curve and we had to learn from our mistakes,” says Robert.

Rewriting policies, restructuring the staff, financial planning – it was a lot to learn for parents and community members who were volunteering their time and had busy lives of their own.

Robert never planned on being president. She came to that AGM more than a year ago to offer her services as a volunteer. But the need for choice and the Dawson Childcare Center’s emphasis on early childhood education was too important for her to pass up the opportunity to make a difference.

Eventually, a skeleton staff was hired and Davidson became supervisor, but the board continued its involvement in running the centre.

With support from the community and local businesses, as well as donations from other groups, the hard work paid off.

Still, while the centre is in a much better financial place, with enrolment close to the maximum of 24 children, there are still struggles ahead.

“Revenue never meets expenses,” says Oppen. “We always need to find new ways to make those two numbers meet.”

Recruiting and retaining qualified staff is also an ongoing issue.

But the vision of DCA is to create a more stable situation in the community and emphasize early childhood programs.

Judging by the Prime Minister’s Award, the little blue daycare centre is on the right track.

Words almost fail the normally-outspoken Davidson as she comments on receiving the prestigious award. “I’m humbled,” she says finally.

It’s an award for the centre, Davidson continues, praising everyone’s efforts.

“It recognizes the importance of early childhood education. The science is out there about how important early education is, but it’s still not that recognized.”