Investing in CEI Child Care Business Lab by Gabrielle Grunkemeyer

Investing in Coastal Enterprises’ Child Care Business Lab

By Gabrielle Grunkemeyer, Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI)

Creating a Replicable Model for Increasing Child Care Access 

Gabrielle Grunkemeyer CEI

(Above) Rayitos de Sol, bilingual child care facility in Milbridge, Maine; photographer Sean Alonzo Harris

Juana Rodriguez-Vazquez has deep ties throughout the Spanish-speaking community in Milbridge, Maine.

She first became a familiar face as teen serving food to field workers from her parents’ food truck, then as a young worker in the wreath factory and blueberry fields. As an adult and mother of two, Juana continued supporting her parents’ expanded food business, while working at Mano en Mano (Hand in Hand), a local nonprofit that works with farmworkers statewide and immigrants in Downeast Maine.

As she rose from assistant teacher to Washington County Regional Coordinator, to Education Program Director, to Executive Director Mano en Mano, Juana became acutely aware of the lack of Spanish-language resources in the area, which particularly impacted children. Her first child has spent his infant and toddler years in a Spanish-speaking environment, but when she had to place her second child in an English-speaking, white-led child care she saw her daughter struggling with unfamiliar foods and Spanish songs and language. Juana could feel the culture that was so important to her family slipping away.

One would be hard-pressed to find someone who knows the needs of her community more, and what they needed was culturally specific child care.

“I had been talking to parents about the opportunities that were [in Milbridge] for childcare,” Juana recalled, “and the lack of opportunities for kids to really practice their language and culture and be in a space where that was really valued and celebrated. And that was always a need, a gap that we always saw as parents missing here.”

When Juana learned about a new program being offered by Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI) to help start new child care services in Maine, she saw the opportunity for Mano en Mano to host the kind of care the community had been asking for.

Though Juana holds a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Maine at Machias and a General Elementary (K-8) Teacher Certification from the Maine Department of Education, she didn’t have direct experience running a child care program. CEI’s Child Care Business Lab was designed for people like Juana – experienced and enthusiastic about early childhood education, but less familiar with the in-and-out running a business and managing the complexities of child care licensing, reimbursements and financials.

CEI’s Child Care Business Lab team walked Juana (and the 7 other members of that first cohort) step-by-step through the licensing process and partnered Juana with a CEI business advisor, who helped her develop business plans, financial projections, marketing and communications. A key part of the program was connecting the cohort participants with others in the field:

“Talking to people that have been doing it for years or have already been doing it is really good when you are designing and thinking about what you’re going to put in your space, and where you should put things,” Juana said, “or even just thinking about, well, you should have a door going to the playground, that’s really helpful. You wouldn’t think about that, but that’s something that you learn from being in the field.”

After completing the program, Juana was able to open Rayitos de Sol, a bilingual child care for 12 children in a former conference room at Mano en Mano, which quickly led to plans to expand to a new dedicated building across the street.

Rayitos de Sol building expansion - by Sean Alonzo Harris - courtesy CEI
Rayitos de Sol, bilingual child care facility in Milbridge, Maine; photo by Sean Alonzo Harris

“Now, especially as we are putting out the new plans for the new building, I’ve had people call me, “I want my child to go there,” and I’m putting them on the list. It’s had a positive impact on the children and families here, having a bilingual space where children can practice their home language if it’s Spanish, and also learn a new language, and bring it back into their home and their families. I really hope that Rayitos de Sol is a model for other communities and other places. I know, especially here in Maine, we do have diverse communities in other areas.”

Bringing the Child Care Business Lab to More Child Care Entrepreneurs

CEI knew exactly where those communities in need of child care were. CEI is a community development financial institution or CDFI that helps create an economy that lifts all people through business advising, financing and policy advocacy. CEI saw that many businesses were having a difficult time finding or retaining workers and reached out to their community connections to find out why. CEI’s Child Care Business Lab emerged from a listening tour of Maine, where residents reported that the lack of quality child care was affecting their ability to work full time, secure a decent livelihood and support their families. Child care was a sector that CEI was familiar with, having financed both nonprofit and for-profit child care enterprises that were purchasing equipment or building child care facilities over the years.

Juana’s cohort of the Child Care Business Lab was funded by a federal grant that focused on residents of Maine’s “rim counties,” those rural areas of the state that border Canada and where there is a great need for child care. CEI has worked for decades with Maine’s immigrant populations, which, like Milbridge have a need for culturally attuned child care, but they were largely clustered outside of the geography covered by the initial funding.

With the successes from that initial cohort, CEI was able to attract support from in-state philanthropic funders to open the Child Care Business Lab to additional rural counties, as well as funding new cohorts of Portuguese, Somali and French speakers in Lewiston, a city home to a large portion of Maine’s immigrant population. A partnership with the United Way of Southern Maine, the Greater Portland Workforce Initiative and Portland Starting Strong recently opened another cohort for immigrants in Maine’s largest city.

These first cohorts provided a fertile ground for learning, not just for the participants, but for CEI’s staff as well. Business plan templates and financial forecasting tools have been created for each type of Maine child care license and the curriculum has been simplified, exclusively focusing on what it takes to open a financially sustainable child care business. Panels of experienced child care providers throughout the program provide a “been there, done that” wisdom, enabling the new entrepreneurs to make better decisions. Despite having taken place during the pandemic, those initial cohorts have already started demonstrating impact, establishing 174 slots for new children, creating 33 new jobs for child care workers, and providing opportunities for 90 parents to get jobs or to go back to school due to having access to quality and affordable child care for their kids.

Rayitos de Sol, bilingual child care facility in Milbridge, Maine - photo by Sean Alonzo Harris
Rayitos de Sol, bilingual child care facility in Milbridge, Maine; photo by Sean Alonzo Harris

As the program gained momentum and the ongoing pandemic continued to put pressure on an already strained child care system nationwide, national foundations and peer organizations began to take notice and have reached out to CEI to explore ways the Child Care Business Lab model could be replicated in other communities.

Built Locally, Adapted Nationally

CEI’s Child Care Business Lab is an example of the kind of solution that CDFIs excel at. Through their lending and business advising in economically sidelined communities, CDFIs learn directly from the individuals in the communities that they serve what the key barriers to success are, allowing them to develop tailored solutions. Based on existing relationships within the community, these solutions can be tested and refined to maximize impact and ease of implementation.

Once an effective program is developed locally, resource limitations become the primary impediment to greater impact – a hurdle that can be overcome through strategic philanthropic partnerships that understand the importance of local efforts to national solutions. Philanthropic funders and impact investors can align themselves with CDFIs and help these mission-driven investors share their solutions so more people can share in the prosperity that everyone deserves.


Article by Gabrielle Grunkemeyer. As the Resource Development Manager at Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI), Gabrielle is a contributing member of the CEI Corporate Development Team, which supports CEI’s fundraising activities. Gabrielle works closely with the Chief Executive Officer, President and Operations Leadership Team to identify philanthropic resource opportunities, develop and write funding proposals, and cultivate and steward relationships with private foundations, donor-advised funds, corporation foundations, and individual donors. She also is responsible for developing, improving, and implementing institutional processes and systems to facilitate strategic development activities. 

In addition to 25 years of project and grant management and fundraising experience, Gabrielle holds a BS from Texas A&M University and an MS for Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. In 2017, she earned a Nonprofit Management Certification from Duke University.

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