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Kansas awards Benedictine abbey $5 million grant to expand local child care capacity

A sign is pictured at the entrance to St. Benedict's Abbey in Atchison, Kan., April 25, 2024. The state of Kansas awarded the abbey a nearly $5 million grant to help fund the monastery's plans to develop child care facilities for the surrounding Atchison community. (OSV News photo/Megan Marley)

ATCHISON, Kan. (OSV News) — The state of Kansas awarded St. Benedict’s Abbey a nearly $5 million grant to help fund the monastery’s proposal to partner with a local childhood learning center and increase much-needed child care facilities for the surrounding community.

Founded in 1857, the monastery has dedicated its mission to serving the educational and pastoral needs of the Atchison community where the abbey is located.

“God opened the door to partner with a child care provider,” Dwight Stephenson, executive director of operations and finance for the monastery, told OSV News. “It’s not that we went out thinking that child care is what we want to be a part of, but the opportunity emerged to partner with a child care organization, and so we took it.”

In 2021, the abbey purchased 160 acres during an Atchison County tax sale. The property is adjacent to land already owned by the monastery and is the site of a former juvenile detention center that has existing structures which the monastery hopes to renovate.

“When we purchased this property, it was our intent to find uses for the land and buildings that would benefit the City of Atchison as well as Atchison County,” said Benedictine Abbot James Albers in a press release. “Our vision for this property is, of course, being good stewards, but more importantly, providing facilities where God’s love impacts the lives of these young people.”

The purchase came after the monastery began searching for options to expand its revenue streams so as to make the abbey more self-sustaining and less dependent on donors.

“About six years ago, there was a conversation within the monastery around the history of the monastery and the future of the monastery,” Stephenson said. “Historically, the monks were self-sufficient. But like many monasteries, over the years, they became more dependent on donors.

“And so the discussion that took place was, ‘How do we want to move forward?'” he said. “So the decision was that if God opens the doors, let’s look at opportunities to create sources of income that are in addition to the donations we receive.”

Soon after the land purchase, the monastery began looking for partners to help run the future facilities. The monastery connected with First Steps, a childhood learning center in Atchison.

After the partnership began, First Steps announced that it would be launching First Steps with Abbey, a nonprofit child care group that would manage and operate the future site.

“We’ve received lots of very positive feedback from people who need child care about our plan and partnership,” Stephenson said. “It’s one thing to see the state statistics; it’s another to have local families say, ‘Wow, this is going to be a blessing because I’m looking for affordable child care and I can’t find it.'”

In November 2023, the abbey learned of the Capital Projects Fund Accelerator, a Kansas state grant that awards money to organizations working to expand child care offerings. The monastery decided to apply for the grant, outlining its plan to use the money to renovate five existing buildings on the property.

“Most states have fewer child care or day care spots available than children. Within Atchison County, there’s a survey the state did, and it said that there are four children for every current child care spot,” Stephenson said. “This is a construction grant, and the whole goal of it is to create these additional child care slots.”

The monastery was one of seven organizations the state awarded the grant to and was one of two to receive the highest grant level: $4,999,999.

“This grant will allow us to renovate these buildings and actually produce (an anticipated) 188 new child care slots,” Stephenson said. “Out of all the different grant applicants who received funds, we are producing the most child care spots.”

With the grant, the monastery hopes to renovate five existing buildings on the property, two of which are planned to be solely dedicated to child care offerings.

Once property renovations are complete, First Steps child care services are anticipated to begin late spring 2025.

Stephenson shared that while this project sounds ambitious, it will allow the abbey to have a greater impact on the local community and continue its storied history of service.

“I think this project is going to both fulfill the state’s purpose, which is to create additional child care slots. But, as we’ve already seen, there is indeed a need locally for more child care,” he said. “And I think as some of the current projects that are in place around the city come to fruition, there will be that much more of a need, so this will be a great opportunity for the abbey to support our local community as it continues to grow.”

Jack Figge writes for OSV News from Kansas.

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