For Dr. Shelli Henehan, the University of Arkansas Fort Smith has always represented family. Her mother was a member of the very first graduating class of the school’s nursing program and her sister also attended class here, as did she, during its days as Westark Community College.
Shelli not only earned an associate degree from the school, but she’s also taught a combined fourteen years here, from 2004 to 2010, then returning in 2014 to today where she holds the multifaceted role of professor of education, coordinator of assessment and director of early childhood.
Now, she’s upped the ante on the family atmosphere at her alma mater, having spearheaded an effort to bring a licensed daycare back to campus, set to open next year.
“It’s going to be beautiful,” she says. “It is so exciting.”
As alums of a certain age might recall, this isn’t the first time the campus has offered daycare facilities. In fact, when Shelli’s sister was a student here, she had two small daughters and took advantage of the amenity.
“At that time, it was in a little yellow house over where the intramural fields are now,” Shelli says. “That was really invaluable to my sister as an adult learner, trying to go back and increase the income for her family.”
At some point since, the daycare facility closed and was gone by the time Shelli did her first teaching tour of duty in 2004. The lack of on-campus childcare stood out to her as a glaring roadblock for women who might otherwise pursue or finish a degree. Not to mention a hole in the curriculum for certain majors.
“I was manager of the early childhood grant program which provides professional development for childcare workers,” she says. “I would hear over and over again people saying, ‘Do we have any childcare options?’ I myself had two children in my forties, and I would have loved to have had a childcare here, too, but the climate was not right at that time.”
It would be a dozen years before the climate would turn in favor of the idea, which gave Shelli lots of time to map out details informally. By the time she found a receptive ear in 2016, she had a well-conceived vision for where the center should go.
“I always wanted the Echols Building, but at that time it was filled with industrial maintenance-type machinery, part of their center for business and professional development where they would do training,” Shelli says. “By 2016, however, the climate was getting better, and the administration was realizing the need for childcare for our adult workers. One of our honor students even did a whole needs assessment and found that it really was something that people wanted.”
Former Chancellor Paul Beran agreed to devote two houses on 49th Street to the cause, and Shelli negotiated a contract with a local childcare center to provide all the employees. Everything was full steam ahead … until it wasn’t.
“Both of those houses tested positive for lead and asbestos and have now been demolished,” Shelli says. “You talk about tears. My dean at the time was Ron Darbo and he was so upset. We had been awarded a small planning grant and we hired an architect to draw up some plans, but [university] leadership at that time did not want to go into a new-build situation.”
The arrival of current chancellor Dr. Terisa Riley in 2019 provided a spark of hope that the project could be revisited. But it would take a worldwide pandemic, ironically enough, to finally put the project over the finish line.
“In April, when money came available with the Arkansas Build Back Better, I went to Dr. Riley and told her this money was available,” Shelli says. “Everywhere she had been apparently had had childcare on campus, so she was really familiar with the administration piece of it and also the need. She was like, ‘If you can get the funding, you can have Echols.’”
Shelli spearheaded writing the ARPA Child Care Supply Building Grant and was notified in June the project had been awarded $1.08 million to refurbish the one-story building and create a large, fenced playground. Work got underway in early fall with the hopes of completing by year’s end. Shelli’s targeting August and the start of the new school year to welcome the center’s first group of youngsters.
The new center, dubbed UAFS Little Lions Child Development Center, will accept children ages six weeks through three years. The infant room will accommodate eight babies, staffed by two caregivers while the toddler classroom will have fourteen toddlers and two caregivers. Another classroom, designated for three-year-olds, will accommodate twenty children and be overseen by two caregivers.
In addition to the six full-time workers, the center will have a full-time director as well. Shelli also anticipates using a fair amount of part-time help from students in the early childhood program as well as dovetailing with academic programs within UAFS’ College of Health and Education in Human Services.
“We have a unique opportunity to have our dental hygienist students work with the children and also our nursing students who will practice wellness checks on the children,” Shelli says. “We’re even looking at using our social work students for perhaps some parent outreach. That’s really exciting because we’re getting all of our programs together in that one college and trying to meet some needs.”
The only element of the project that had to be amended from its original plan was who would be able to access the services.
“Originally, I wanted it just for students, but the Division of Childcare asked us to include faculty and staff because they are considered essential workers,” Shelli says. “If we still have openings after that, then we would have slots for the community. We want to have a full childcare center.”
Talking about the project brings a joyful tone into Shelli’s voice. Having been in the works so long, she sees the new center as a fitting way to mark her and her family’s long affiliation with the school.
“You know, it won’t be long until I retire, and it makes me feel good to know that when the time comes for me to go, I’ll leave something lasting behind,” she says. “I can’t wait to get the first group of children here. That’s going to be so wonderful.”
Follow University of Arkansas Fort Smith on social media for updates.