Pastor Sarah Merchant arrived in Stevensville in July 2019, to take over the ministry of Stevensville United Methodist Church. It wasn’t long after that the congregation of around 80 souls was tackling the question of how to honor the legacy of this historic church and still be relevant.
The historic church on College Street at the corner of E. 3rd and Pine needed a new roof. “If we put on a new roof,” says Merchant, “what would happen underneath it?”
Part of a younger, perhaps less doctrinaire group of clergy, Merchant puts a lot of her focus on the church’s role in the greater community. A mother of young children, Merchant soon found that there was no infant care available in Stevensville. She ended up having to take her kids to the Bitterroot Early Learning Center in Corvallis. She talked to the director there, LaRee Jessop, about running a daycare and it so happened that Jessop was looking to expand.
Merchant has done a lot of research into early learning. She found that only 29% of children in Ravalli County get this early care, due to a number of obstacles, such as availability and cost considerations.
Merchant brought her findings to her congregation. “As a church, we said, let’s research this and complete a plan.” That was on the last Sunday before COVID-19 shut everything down, in spring 2020. But even though the congregation could no longer meet in person, they moved forward with the plan, saying yes to honoring the historic sanctuary space by keeping it and then creating a new space for children and also serving the entire community with a new space.
The old fellowship hall was demolished and a new space was created, which is just now receiving the finishing touches in anticipation of opening this week as Sapphire Early Learning Center.
During the construction, the sanctuary space was arranged to accommodate all the groups that were previously using the fellowship hall – Al-anon, AA, Scouts, WIC, blood drives, Bitterroot Co-op, 4-H and more. They will be able to use the new hall that was incorporated into the design of the new space which at 7000 square feet is twice the size of the old hall.
The new space includes the fellowship hall/community center, a new kitchen, six classrooms and new bathrooms. The school is licensed for infant to 12 years with all-day care up to 5 years old and after school up to fifth grade. Morning preschool is also available. Merchant describes it as “play-based preschool learning that is age appropriate.”
Merchant says there is “no overt faith component, but our values cross over.” She said the children won’t be learning stories from the Bible but they will be learning “compassion and kindness and what it means to be a good citizen in the world, and how to relate to one another with civility and kindness.”
Tuesday, September 7 was the first day of school for Sapphire Early Learning Center. Twenty-four children were registered as of last week, with a potential capacity of up to 75. There are six people on the staff, including LaRee Jessop, director. Jessop, who has owned and operated Bitterroot Early Learning Center in Corvallis for 18 years, has a degree in Early Childhood Education. She believes passionately in the importance of early childhood education and “making sure that you are implementing a program that is developmentally appropriate.” She says it’s important to not have unrealistic expectations. “Each child is unique. We want to provide them with what they need to be successful.”
Jessop said that the new facility is “amazing” and she’s excited to have a new facility “starting from ground zero.”
She said that the need for it is huge, but they can’t find enough qualified staff to accommodate more kids at this time. She said the lead people need to have at least two years of experience or a degree in early childhood development. She’s confident that they will get there with time. She said it’s encouraging that the State of Montana has “really stepped up its game” in the area of creating incentives for early childhood training and degrees.
Jessop will be at SELC every day and will be in charge of the staff and program management. She has an impressive history of forging partnerships with outside entities, such as Best Beginnings STARS to Quality, a quality rating system for childcare providers. She’s also associated with Best Beginning Scholarships, which provides financial help for families. In the future, she’s hoping that SELC can be a part of Early Headstart Partnerships.
“Partnerships are a big part of creating a successful higher quality facility,” said Jessop. She added, “I’m really excited to learn about the Stevensville community. I’m excited to be associated with the dedicated board that plans to make Sapphire Early Learning Center successful.”
The partnership between Stevensville United Methodist Church and Sapphire Early Learning Center will be on display at a community open house on Thursday, September 9th from 6 to 8 p.m. with a program at 6:30 featuring Stevensville’s mayor and some Stevensville school teachers. There will be tours and refreshments (“a variation on PB&J,” according to Merchant).
“We’re saying yes, we’re a faith community, but we’re also your neighbors,” says Merchant. She says that the United Methodist Church has always been community-minded, and that if you look around you will see members of the congregation serving on numerous non-profit boards and volunteering in many other organizations. “It’s in our DNA. We’ve always been out in the community,” says Merchant. “Now we’re going to be stewards of our space and we can share our space, too.”
She adds, “It’s a question of what matters and do we want to survive? We want to survive. And thrive.”