HOISINGTON — Debbie Stephens has a lot of faith. Since she started GPS Kids Club in Hoisington in 2013, she’s prayed her way through the licensing process and the building inspections before the doors could even open.
Now, she’s facing another big obstacle, and the question on the minds of many parents in Hoisington is what the answer to her fervent prayers will be. Will she be able to keep opening those doors?
The faith-based non-profit childcare provider needs to come up with $42,136.76 by the end of the month in order to pay for a needed fire alarm system. The Office of the State Fire Marshal (OSFM) will offer no further extensions beyond the May 31 deadline.
Currently, GPS has been able to keep its doors open because it operates as an after-school childcare program, so the number of hours that children are in the building falls within the limits of the current system. But, the school year ends for USD 431 Hoisington on May 16.
After that, several families rely on GPS Kids Club to care for upwards of 60 children over the summer months while parents are at work. Without the fire alarm system, the OSFM will shut it down, leaving families scrambling to find alternatives.
“There simply aren’t enough other providers in the area to take in all of the kids,” Stephens said Tuesday from the GPS kitchen. Students were sharing a hearty after-school snack after completing their homework.
The need for the new alarm system and other upgrades came to Stephens’ attention last August, after the annual inspection by a fire prevention inspector with OSFM. After passing each earlier inspection since the center’s opening, everything seemed routine.
Then, the next day, Stephens received a violation notice, and in a conference call was advised to hire an architect to revise the center’s code map. Changes to the fire code may have put the center out of compliance, she suspects. The Great Bend Tribune was unable to confirm Friday with the OSFM. She would also need to submit plans for a new fire alarm system, and for fire-resistant construction updates to the center.
All of this comes as the center continues to raise funds to replace the 50-year-old boiler that stopped working in December 2017, causing Stephens to scramble to find a temporary location to accommodate kids off school for winter break. The school district, businesses and churches in Hoisington came to her aid, and local contractors provided large space heaters that allowed her to reopen her doors and continue to operate through the rest of the winter.
The new HVAC system was estimated to cost $60,000, and the GPS parent advisory board has been working diligently ever since holding fundraisers to raise the money necessary to complete the new system.
The City of Hoisington at that time stepped in with a generous donation from the city’s transient guest tax fund, and has been lenient with utility bills to the center for several months, Stephens said.
An uphill climb
Adhering to the deadlines set by the OSFM has been a challenge, with strict deadlines set for submission of architectural plans for a revised code map, and later for a new fire alarm system and required fire resistant construction updates. The race started Aug. 15, 2018, when Stephens was informed the center was in violation.
It has been fraught with deadlines, waiver extensions, and new deadlines for submissions of plans: first for a fire code map, then for a new fire alarm system and fire resistant construction updates. All leading up to Wednesday, when Stephens received the revised bid for the fire alarm system, now $42,136.96 and several thousands of dollars higher than her first estimates over six months ago.
After making a recent payment on the HVAC system, the parent advisory board has raised just under $2,000 for the project. Stephens has applied for a special loan with Kansas USDA Rural Development. Funding for the program has been approved from the federal government, Stephens was told, but it is uncertain when the funds will be released, and there are other applications ahead of GPS Kids Club’s.
So now, Stephens is praying for another miracle. The fire alarm company is willing to help if she can come up with 100 percent of the materials costs by allowing her time to pay the balance, or set up a payment plan for the remainder, she said.
That’s all just the first leg of the race, she realizes. If she succeeds in funding the alarm system, the marathon will be completing the fire-resistant construction updates. The center should be able to stay open with some areas of the building being temporarily shut down until updates are made. That can happen section by section, Stephens said.
She has also contacted other area non-profit organizations, including the Central Kansas Dream Center in Great Bend, to get advice on the state tax credit program.
When she first visited with the architect back in August, she asked if the building was even worth the effort. She was assured it was.
“He said yes, it is an excellent building. Yes, it needs some love and some money, but it is a good solid building.”
Completing the required updates will cost much less than building a new facility, which she has been advised would cost at the very least $1 million to accommodate a program like GPS Kids Club.
If they don’t come up with the money in time, Stephens is uncertain what her next step might bee. It has parents concerned.
“My biggest concern is GPS is over with,” said Alicia Boor, a member of the facility’s Parents’ Advisory Board. She was at the center to pick up her son who attends after school and during the summer. “A lot of families aren’t going to know what to do.”
In the summer, the program expands to include kids from Great Bend, Odin, Olmitz, and even as far south as St. John. Stephens likens it to a melange of scouting, 4-H, arts and crafts, summer recreation and more.
“This building is so perfect for everything we do.”Debbie Stephens, founder of GPS Kids Club
Staff also provides academic enrichment, which is important especially this year, as USD 431 opted not to provide summer school this year, due to a combination of staffing issues, poor attendance in recent years and unsatisfactory results.
The age group that GPS Kids Club serves is unique. Many individuals who provide home day care are looking for pre-school aged kids or younger that will be there year-round. School-age kids are old enough by law to be left home alone, but they really aren’t old enough to be left by themselves to their own resources, Stephens said.
“This building is so perfect for everything we do,” Stephens said. “The kids have room. There are spaces for them to do different things, to pursue their interests, to have their space and be supervised.”
The race so far....
• In November, Debbie Stephens asked Julia Dunlap with Fire Tronics to draw up plans for the alarm system, and on Nov. 30, 2018, the company submitted a letter requesting an extension of waiver, which was okayed, giving the center until the end of the year to submit the plans.
• On Jan. 9, GPS submitted a waiver for the alarm system installation, including financial records of the center as proof of hardship. The waiver was accepted, with the end date set for May 31, 2019. The acceptance stated no further extensions would be granted.
• But on Jan. 21, when Stephens notified Barbara Burgen at the Office of the State Fire Marshal that the new HVAC units had been installed, she inquired if the center still needed to complete a firewall now that the boiler was no longer in use; new obstacles surfaced. Stephens also inquired about approval for the revised code map, which had not yet been approved. According to the original violation notice, nothing could proceed without OSFM approval.
• Stephens’ architect reviewed the code map with the HVAC system in mind, eliminating the boiler room firewall in the basement.
• The initial fire alarm system plans were denied, and Stephens received a list of violations requiring correction. The OSFM gave 90 days to resubmit the design, which FireTronics sent on Feb. 7. The OSFM approved the revised code map on Feb. 19. FireTronics received a letter from Matt Kangas, OSFM fire prevention supervisor, also advising that plans for the alarm, suppression and extinguishing system needed to be submitted separately for review and approval before the final inspection.
• When the FireTronics informed Stephens the revised code map and been approved, she called Brenda Reber, the OSFM enforcement inspector, to discuss the waiver deadline for the basement firewall. At this point, Stephens was confident she was in compliance and the project was continuing to move forward. Fundraisers continued to be planned, and there was hope.
• Then, March 29, Reber called concerning a firewall completion deadline that had passed days earlier. During that conversation, Stephens and Reber realized the fire alarm system had never been approved by the OSFM. No further waiver extensions would be issued.
• Plans were submitted again, and on April 9, a fire protection specialist with OSFM, Brian Love, contacted FireTronics and approved the plans.