Many residents of Columbia Borough don’t have access to quality, affordable child care, and CHI St. Joseph Children’s Health wants to change that.

The nonprofit announced this week that by 2020 it’s planning to open a center for up to 122 children, with an emphasis on wellness — and tuition that’s roughly half of what a commercial center charges.

“People are paying upward of $1,300 or $1,500 a month for an infant to be in child care, which simply isn’t sustainable,” said Phil Goropoulos, the nonprofit’s president.

The center will be open to anyone, he said, but a discount program designed to keep tuition to 20 percent or less of household income will be available only to those in the borough’s ZIP code, 17512.

A comparison of the capacity of existing centers in the borough to birth records suggests that more than 400 children may not currently have access to local child care, Goropoulos said.

He estimated that the center serving children ages 6 weeks to 5 years old will cost about $6.45 million to open and then $1 million a year to run.

The nonprofit has committed to subsidizing the center, Goropoulos said, but is seeking partners and hopes it eventually becomes self-sufficient. Currently the nonprofit’s annual budget is about $5 million, he said.

The center will be called St. John Neumann School for Children and Families.

Positive start

Jamie Widener is executive director of Columbia Life Network, a social service hub trying to connect the community with resources and opportunities.

Child care often costs so much that affording it requires “a good, solid income,” he said, and a fifth of borough residents live below the poverty level, so the lack of good options “starts the cycle in a negative direction.”

Goropoulos said giving children and families a healthy start is the project’s biggest goal, and that wellness will be woven throughout the center’s activities.

For instance, he said, the children’s snacks and meals will be prepared on-site from locally sourced fruits, vegetables and meats, and an on-site family wellness coach will support the development of healthy family dynamics.

The plan also involves giving workers professional wages and benefits, he said, and keeping older children with the same teachers as they age.

“That’s how we build a real relationship with families,” he said.

CHI 1

CHI St. Joseph Children's Health now owns the building at 401 Locust Street in Columbia, PA.

Building plans

The nonprofit recently bought the building at 401 Locust St., where it runs a dental program on the first floor.

That program will remain, Goropoulos said, but the second and third floors currently used as business and residential space will be cleared as their leases expire, and then extended over the parking lot.

The project will more than double the building’s size to roughly 18,000 square feet, he said, and will include a rooftop playground.

Renovations and construction are expected to start early next year, he said, with design by Steve Funk of Lancaster-based Lefevre Funk Architects. Pyramid Construction in Wormleysburg will serve as general contractor.

Ongoing efforts

CHI St. Joseph Children’s Health has made Columbia a priority in the last few years amid a revision of its offerings aimed at creating more measurable change and lasting impact.

The two most recent additions have been Baby Box and infant formula programs offered for free to parents in the 17512 ZIP code.

There’s also the dental office that opened at 401 Locust St. about two and a half years in Columbia, offering significant discounts that make care free for uninsured households with income up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Goropoulos said about 80 percent of its patients live in the borough, with the rest coming from across a 10-county region.

Rebecca Secrist Denlinger, Columbia’s borough manager, said she hasn’t heard any opposition to plans for the center.

The nonprofit “is a great community partner,” she said. “We look forward to working with them to build more positive things.”