Every weekday from 5:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Tonya Staton or a member of her team is onsite caring for young learners at N.C. Open Arms Childcare in Robersonville. With the help of the Martin Community College Small Business Center, Staton was able to officially open her own child care center this summer.
Staton’s career in child care began nearly 23 years ago. She remembers her start to the date – Sept. 15, 1999 – when Hurricane Floyd touched down in North Carolina.
“The day of the flood,” Staton said.
Since then, Staton has worked in child care centers across the area. For the last year, she has worked closely with the former owner – also her former employer – in hopes of taking over the business. While her former employer wanted to sell the building, Staton hoped to rent, largely due to uncertainties related to COVID-19.
She said the MCC Small Business Center helped her realize that owning was an option.
“I was like, ‘You know what, I’m just gonna trust this process and just go for it.’ And I said, ‘I’m gonna go ahead and buy the building,’” Staton said. “They talked to me. I weighed all my options about buying this building.”
Staton said it was Charles Banks and Lena Jackson at the MCC Small Business Center who provided her with the information and resources to buy the building. She said the resources the center provided, plus her family support, helped kick start the dream she had.
“I stepped out on faith and went in that direction,” Staton said.
According to a recent economic impact study, Martin Community College added $54.9 million in income to its regional economy, which includes Martin, Bertie, Pitt, Edgecombe, Beaufort, and Washington counties. In terms of jobs, MCC’s impact supported 1,010 jobs. Staton has experienced the impact of Martin Community College firsthand.
Meeting a community need
According to the Martin-Pitt Partnership for Children, there are only 12 child care centers and 7 family child care homes in Martin County. There are 1,211 children aged 0-5, but only 703 children are enrolled in child care in the county as of July 2022.
Teaching shortages in early child care are forcing the state to get creative. EdNC reporter Liz Bell has outlined recent decreases in children enrolled in programs, overall sites, and staff members from January 2018 to November 2021.
While the industry is experiencing shortages, MCC appears to be seeing an uptick in interest in the career. Deboria Outlaw, an early childhood instructor at MCC, said early childhood student enrollment has increased from 18 students in 2018 to 30 students enrolled this fall.
Dr. Tabitha Miller, chief academic officer at MCC, said student interest in the early childhood program at MCC will help fill the gap for child care in the county.
“There is a big need in the community,” Miller said.
Putting education first
Staton grew up on a farm where she shared a house with approximately 15 other people. She said her upbringing showed her the value of education.
“Education was going to be the thing that was going to get me out, and get me to where I need to be,” Staton said.
Years later, she has seen that come true with the opening of her child care center. Because education has always been a personal priority, she said prioritizing it for students at her center is important, too.
“I just make sure they build and grow so when they go to kindergarten, their teacher won’t look at them as a challenge, rather than a success,” Staton said. “So that’s my main thing. I just want to make sure our children can reach their full potential.”
This commitment to education trickles down into Staton’s personal and professional life. Staton is a graduate of community college herself. She graduated in 2020 with her associate in applied science in early childhood education from Wilson Community College. By 2021, she had earned her birth through kindergarten (B-K) license. Five of her six employees are also fully licensed, with one planning to complete her certification soon.
Some afternoons when she gets in her car and heads home, Staton said she can’t turn on the radio — she has to process her day and the time spent with students.
“It’s a lot but if you’re not up for the challenge, it can be hard,” Staton said. “You know, child care, it can be rewarding and it can be challenging because if you have children, they can be the best part of your day.”