Red Caboose volunteers assemble at the 2012 Move Your Caboose 5K.
The center, a well-known landmark on Williamson Street, is also celebrating 41 years of business with an ice cream social at Marquette Elementary School after the run.
Wendy Rakower has been the center's executive director since 1983 but has worked with the center for 40 years. She has watched entire families grow up, spending their formative years at the Red Caboose.
Rakower believes that Move Your Caboose and the scholarship fund are an integral part of the non-profit's mission and operations.
"In the past several years, the need for scholarships has increased, as the economic climate has gotten worse, and people are losing job and getting paycuts," Rakower says. "This is one of the ways that we fulfill our mission of being open and accessible to all children and all families."
Beyond the scholarship program, the Red Caboose embraces their mission of providing accessible early education in a number of ways, including a sliding pay scale and growing after-school and summer programs for both pre-school and school-aged children.
"We just have a lot of different kinds of families, including a really good socio-economic mixture," Rakower says. "We believe that it's a benefit for all childeren to basically be in a group that reflects the community that we live in."
The center's unique approach to tuition and accessibility has made it somewhat of a role- model in the local childcare community.
Lisa Fiala, the center's director for school-age programs, believes that the Red Caboose has also become a leader in the community because of its high standards regarding student-teacher ratios and class sizes.
"I feel the Red Caboose has had a huge impact in the community in a variety of ways," Fiala says. "A lot of people really look to Red Caboose as a positive example of quality child care and really try to model after what Red Caboose has been doing."
Rakower stresses that the scholarship program and sliding pay scale are part of an effort to bring vital early education to children, especially those low-income or at-risk children who might not normally have access to daycare.
"Kids are at a disadvantage going into kindergarten, and our whole school system is set up as if children start learning when they're 5," Rakower says. "What happens [here] is so important and yet there's zero support."
Randy Knudson, a local parent and scholarship recipient, understands the importance and challenge of finding quality early childhood care.
Knudson is the legal guardian of his grandson, Chief, and found the Red Caboose through a recommendation from his girlfriend. He is self-employed and finds it challenging to maintain his business while Chief, 8, is home from school during the summer. The Red Caboose's summer program for school-age children has allowed him to continue to work, knowing that Chief is in a safe and educational environment.
"They're with their friends and they get to play. They're learning things. It's the best thing you could ask for," Knudson says.
After being approached by the Red Caboose staff, Knudson found out about the scholarship program, and was given financial support for the tuition.
"It's awesome. They're great people," Knudson says. "It makes a huge difference for me, to have it paid for."
Rakower's sliding pay scale and scholarship program are in place for families like the Knudsons, but the venture is expensive. After receiving financial support through an alumni fund and community donations, the center still needs to raise a substantial amount of money each year.
"We have determined that we need to raise at least $50,000 a year to help pay for scholarships so that we can make sure that low-income families have the same access to high-quality early care and education as families that can afford it," Rakower says.
The center's fund-raising goals are challenging, but Rakower and her staff believe in the importance of the programs that they offer, and are willing to make the effort.
"This is a lot of money for a relatively small non-profit," Rakower says. "It's a lot of work for a volunteer committee, but it's what we're doing."