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Bristol preschool looking to buy land

AUGUSTUS AND OTHER students at Wren’s Nest Forest preschool in Bristol splash in a puddle during the school day. The nature-based preschool hopes to expand its offerings and relocate to a permanent site, supported by a Community Revitalization and Recovery Program grant. Photo courtesy of Tasha Ball/Willowell

BRISTOL — The Willowell Foundation has won a grant that will support a $1.4 million plan to relocate the organization’s Wren’s Nest Forest preschool to a permanent home, while expanding the program’s capacity and addressing the need for more affordable housing for the labor force in the county.

The foundation was one of four Addison County entities to receive funding through the first round of Community Recovery and Revitalization Program (CRRP) grants, and will receive $296,160 from the Community Business and Development Agency.

The funds will go towards the purchase of land for a new site for the Wren’s Nest program and the construction of a modest school building for the preschool, which currently rents space at Wild Roots Community Farm in Bristol.

“The program is in its 11th year as a vibrant, well-known and loved school, but we have had to move the program twice since 2012 and our most recent move was a direct result of the pandemic,” said Tasha Ball, Willowell Administrative Director . “Really, for the long-term sustainability of the program, we need our own facilities.”

Wren’s Nest Forest Preschool is a licensed nature-based program for children ages three to five. Learning in preschool develops through interactions with the natural world and is centered around a hands-on, evidence-based curriculum.

PRESCHOOL ZAHRA USES stones to help her count as she learns outdoors at Wren’s Nest Forest preschool in Bristol. The preschool recently received a Community Recovery and Revitalization Program grant that will help the program relocate to a permanent location, expand its offerings, and build housing for low-income workers. Photo courtesy of Tasha Ball/Willowell

Since Fall 2021, Wren’s Nest has been located on the Wild Roots Farm and Working Farm. Ball said the preschool program feels it is now necessary to secure its own location, though Willowell’s association with the farm has been fruitful.

“Wild Roots Community Farm has been incredibly kind and welcoming to our program. We look forward to partnering with them in the future and we strongly believe in the work they are doing. They opened up their home and property in Wren’s Nest when we needed to move two years ago, and it’s been a truly magical place to land the show,” he said.

The foundation has identified a potential new site for the Wren’s Nest on the outskirts of the Bristol village area. Ball said Willowell has been in talks with the owners and hopes to purchase the property later this spring and begin building a school on the site soon after.

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The project will also include construction of a three-bedroom low-income housing unit for AmeriCorps members. The Willowell Foundation has a 22-year history of working with AmeriCorps service members and currently houses four to five members through the Vermont Youth Development Corps program.

Two or three of the foundation’s AmeriCorps members serve at Wren’s Nest and help with teaching, curriculum planning and program support in a variety of other ways. Construction of the three-bedroom unit would allow the Willowell Foundation to house AmeriCorps members during their time with the Wren’s Nest.

“They really are a vital part of what we do, of our work. We bring local educators from across the country to Vermont to work with us for a year or more,” Ball said. “In recent years, they have been unable to find housing and are actually living on the federal minimum wage.”

Ball added that the foundation sees a variety of advantages in investing in housing for its AmeriCorps members.

“Offering members low-income housing options will provide a multifaceted benefit: strengthening the workforce, training and mentoring new educators, attracting more youth to come to Vermont to work and live, all while simultaneously contributing to the success of high quality, affordable child care,” she said.

The foundation is optimistic that moving Wren’s Nest to a permanent site will allow the program to add about three to five additional preschool spaces. Ball said the preschool program is committed to reserving a portion of those new spots for low- and moderate-income families.

Wren’s Nest is a specialized child care provider, and low-income or struggling families may receive state subsidies to cover all or part of their tuition at Wren’s Nest. The Willowell Foundation also offers scholarships for the program and all other foundation offerings.

WREN’S NEST PRESCHOOL Jane collects leaves while outside at the Bristol program. The preschool recently received a state grant that will support her move to a new location and help the program expand its offerings.
Photo courtesy of Tasha Ball/Willowell

“Wren’s Nest Preschool currently serves a handful of low-income families, and funds from this grant will allow us the long-term stability to reserve more than 20% of our spots for low-to-moderate income applicants,” Ball said. “Our vision is to offer this play-based outdoor programming to any and all children in the region who wish to attend.”

Foundation officials believe the project will also support the subsequent hiring of more teachers and offer more freedom to run additional summer programs. Ball said the seven camps that Wren’s Nest is offering this coming summer filled up in a week and have long waiting lists.

“Having our own space will allow us to have less of an impact on the working farm (Wild Roots) and his family and run programs all summer long and maybe even run more than one camp at a time. We’re finding that that’s a huge need in Addison County, summer programming for this age range,” Ball said.

The Willowell Foundation is now looking to tap into other funding sources to finance the project, which has a total anticipated cost of $1,480,800. The foundation has submitted a proposal for a portion of the funds from Bristol’s American Rescue Plan Act, and Ball said the organization is seeking additional funding opportunities.

“We are looking under every stone, leaving no stone unturned in terms of financing the entire project,” he said. “We are looking at other grant funds and we hope to do a capital campaign, or some type of donor campaign to fill some of the rest of the funding gap.”

With CRRP funds secured to get the project off the ground, the foundation hopes to purchase land for the preschool program later this spring and start the project in the summer. Ball said that ideally, Wren’s Nest would start operating at its new location in the fall of 2024.

“I am so excited to share outdoor education with more people and open it up to broader demographics, have more places for kids to get outdoors, get muddy and live their best lives in the Vermont elements,” she said.


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