This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Snowboard instructor Dorothy Olmstead and ski teacher Kris Peterson fly small airplanes into the Alaskan backcountry in the summer, then look for gigs at ski resorts for the winter.
But with a toddler, the crosscountry seasonal lifestyle started to feel impossible for the couple.
So when Peterson told his partner last summer that Steamboat ski area was opening a child care center for its employees, she didn’t actually believe him. “He was like, ‘Let’s go to Steamboat for the winter. They have a day care center opening,’” Olmstead recalled. “I didn’t even think it was real.”
Olmstead has worked 11 seasons as a snowboard instructor at eight mountains across the West. Not one had a child care center.
But the family left Talkeetna, Alaska, near the entrance to Denali National Park, and arrived in Steamboat just as the ski season was beginning. Not only did they get an apartment through the resort’s employee housing program, but a spot for their 3-year-old son, Jonah, at the new child care center for the kids of resort workers.
Steamboat is the latest, and still one of the few, ski resorts to open a child care center for its employees. After affordable housing, child care is the top concern of many workers in resort towns, where the cost of living has far outpaced the salaries of local workers.
Breckenridge Ski Resort opened a child care center for employees’ kids this season, too, a program for 20 children at the base of Peak 9. Aspen Skiing Company is donating money for the expansion of community day care and preschool programs. Winter Park’s child care center was initially started in the 1970s as a co-op by a group of employees who were parents, but has since become a resort-operated center. And Vail Resorts has an employee child care center in Avon for workers at Vail and Beaver Creek.
The Steamboat Child Care Center, where the toys and walls are natural greens and blues and the snowy playground is along the banks of Walton Creek, opened in December. Priority for its 30 spots per day goes to resort employees, including those who are seasonal and part time.
The rest were opened up this month to the community, a “day care desert” where just one other center in Steamboat takes infants from the community at large. Steamboat Resort employees, who get 20% off regular rates, quickly filled 19 spots, leaving 11.
Within 48 hours, there were 49 kids in the community on the waiting list.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Loryn Duke, who works in the resort’s communication office and helped lead the effort to open the child care center.
About a year ago, Duke and others made a pitch to resort executives that an employee child care center was key to recruiting and retaining workers. Though it was difficult to predict how many workers needed day care, a review of ski passes for Steamboat’s some 2,000 employees and their dependents revealed 52 ski passes for children under 6.
This was a decent estimate of how many infants through kindergarteners belonged to Steamboat staff, considering that workers often sign up even newborn babies for the free passes that are perks of the job.
Duke and others in the marketing department told resort leadership that within their department alone, multiple parents could not find or keep child care. Duke struggled to the point of tears trying to find a spot for her daughter, calling area centers nearly every day during her three-month maternity leave.
“There were no waitlists maintained,” she said. “I had to call every day, every two days, email them. I had to hope that the day I would call would be the day that someone else quit. I’m trying to learn how to keep a child alive. I’m breastfeeding and all the things that come with being a mom. And then I also had to call a child care facility every day.”
A communications manager in the office had taken maternity leave before Duke and returned to work with child care lined up. But it didn’t last — the boy’s child care center in Oak Creek, about 20 miles from Steamboat, closed and left her scrambling to find a replacement.
Their ask to Steamboat executives coincided with a state grant program approved by the legislature in 2020, an effort to support the opening and expansion of day care centers. Steamboat resort was awarded $500,000 from the state, promising to spend another $500,000 of its own.
Steamboat center has environmental education program
Steamboat hired its child care center director, Sarah Mikkelson, in January 2022, when she began the work of finding a place to put the center and hiring and training its staff of 12. Mikkelson led the transformation of a former medical office, just downhill and a few minutes’ drive from the mountain, into the child care center. Colorado regulations require a space at least 4,200 square feet to fit an infant room, toddler room and preschool room — the building was 4,207.
The location also fit right into Mikkelson’s plans for creating a program that centered on teaching kids about the environment and sustainability. There’s a bald eagle sanctuary near the creek, moose walking around beyond the preschool fence, and a bike path that hugs the Yampa River.
Two weeks ago, as powder continued to dump on Steamboat, the kids made a giant snowman with a smiley face next to their playground equipment.
The goal was to create a top-quality program, not an adequate space for employees to leave their kids for the work day. Steamboat ski area worked with EPIC, Executives Partnering to Invest in Children, a Denver organization that helps businesses set up employee child care programs. And employees received training through local community college courses.
Mikkelson is trying to hire workers from outside the community instead of raiding the staff of other child care facilities in town. And to promote staff, as well as customer retention, she’s adopted a “continuity of care” model in which the same teacher stays with the same four babies for three years, moving with them as they progress to toddler and preschool rooms.
She’s been blown away by the number of people hoping to get into the new center, and the attitude of those who received a spot for their kids.
“They’re so grateful. Everybody’s so grateful,” Mikkelson said. “And the feedback has been amazing.”
Aspen-Snowmass donated $300k to expand community child care programs
In Aspen, the ski resort operator is concerned as well about a lack of child care for its 4,000 employees. But instead of building its own center, Aspen-Snowmass invested in creating more day care slots in the community.
Aspen Skiing Company, which operates four ski areas in the Roaring Fork Valley, donated $300,000 over three years, beginning in 2021, to two child care programs. Blue Lake Preschool put the money toward expanding its capacity for infants and toddlers at its Basalt and Carbondale locations, plus staff retention and tuition scholarships for families in need.
The other half of the $300,000 went to Valley Settlement, a nonprofit helping in-home day care centers in the Roaring Fork Valley receive training in nutrition, preschool education, and safety. The two-year program helps grandmothers, aunts and friends, many of them immigrants, who are caring for children in their homes. In some cases, they are able to apply for licenses and earn better pay.
Aspen Skiing Company also dedicated eight units in its new 43-unit employee housing building in Basalt to child care workers.
Like many of the resort company’s philanthropy efforts, the goal is to improve the community at large, which is why Aspen Skiing Company is trying to boost community child care options rather than build a child care center. “If our employees are facing these problems, our friends and neighbors are, too,” said Hannah Berman, senior manager of Aspen Skiing Company’s sustainability and philanthropy department.
Aspen Skiing Company has a child care center in Snowmass, the Treehouse, that takes care of children while their parents are skiing, but also accepts the kids of resort employees.
If every child care center were operating at capacity in the Roaring Fork Valley, which includes Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties, there would be enough spots for only half of the children under 6, Berman said.
Winter Park employees created on-mountain day care 40 years ago
Winter Park was at the forefront of the child care shortage, thanks to a group of parents who asked their employer if they could use space on the mountain to set up a day care co-op for the 1978-79 ski season. They were allowed to use a room in the administration building, and the parents bought the equipment and supplies, and paid the workers taking care of their children.
The setup evolved over the years, and now is a resort-run early education center for up to 33 infants and kids per day in the Balcony House, at the base of the mountain near the gondola.
“There are employees of the resort who work for the resort and live in the Fraser Valley just because of onsite child care,” Winter Park spokeswoman Jen Miller said. “It’s important to keep primarily women in the workplace, and the talents and skills of those women.”
For Olmstead, who is a snowboard instructor supervisor at Steamboat ski area this winter, having affordable, convenient child care is allowing her to pursue the same jobs she did before she was a mom. She hopes to spend the summer flying in Alaska, then return to Steamboat next winter.
And it makes all the difference that Jonah loves his new school. “It’s not just some place that we drop off our kid,” she said. “It’s a place that he’s learning. He’s engaged.”