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CARES Act helps learning center in Norwalk remain vibrant


Submitted by Jayne Armstrong | Iowa district director, U.S. Small Business Administration

Oh, to only be a child again. 

This is the first thought that comes to mind touring Crayons 2 Pencils Early Learning Center in Norwalk. The vibrant campus is full of energy where children are consistently challenged in an interactive, hands-on learning environment.

After spending an hour with owner Jill Larsen and her dynamic team, you understand why Crayons 2 Pencils is so successful. She has incorporated every detail into her business model – respect for children, a family-friendly environment for parents and grandparents, top notch security, a creative curriculum, valued employees, and a high-growth community.

Larsen took a leap of faith and opened Crayons 2 Pencils four years ago and has been expanding ever since.

Crayons 2 Pencils offers full day, before and after school care and preschool only programs for children from six weeks old to school age. The children are grouped by age and classroom to meet their developmental needs. Parents and grandparents easily track their activities by following individualized Facebook sites for each class. An extensive security system monitors almost every inch of the property.

The Learning Center’s rooms feature touchscreen white whiteboards for interactive learning and even a giant iPad projected onto the floor for the kids to develop their motor skills. Their creative artwork adorns almost every inch of the hallways. The hands-on learning environment includes a discovery kitchen, a computer lab, a Lego wall, library story time, science experiments, special guest speakers, and classes in music, Spanish and sign language.

The extensive outdoor area is used for both play and classroom activities, including a garden and a performance stage. The families are included in all class field trips and parents can even order take home meals and snacks for after school sports activities, with everything baked by the in-house chef.

Location is critical to Crayons 2 Pencils’ sustainability and growth. Norwalk is one of the fastest growing communities within the Des Moines metropolitan area, with a forecasted growth of over 50 percent in the next decade. The influx of young professional families will drive the need for childcare.

The path to entrepreneurial success has been a continuous growth process for Larsen. She first worked in childcare as a high school student and later started a home-based day care on a military base after the birth of her first child. After relocating back to Iowa, she ran a home-based day care for years as her own family expanded to six children. She took a leap of faith and opened Crayons 2 Pencils four years ago and has been expanding ever since.

The day before the COVID-19 mandatory closures hit Iowa in March she signed the lease on a vacant church just down the road from the Learning Center. After extensive renovations she opened the Crayons 2 Pencils Recreation Center for school aged children in mid-June. The center already has 71 students enrolled, with 90 registered for the fall.

The recreation center has it all – an arcade, sand volleyball court, a kids’ culinary kitchen, a gym, Lego room, a stage for karaoke and other performances, a planned miniature golf course, and classrooms for everything from cheerleading to yoga. The colorful facility features a sophisticated biometric security system and academic and life skills training incorporated into all the activities.

Larsen’s husband Matt is an IT supervisor in the 132nd Wing of the Iowa Air National Guard. He recently left his position as a senior financial counselor at Principal Financial Group after a 15-year tenure to join the Crayon 2 Pencils team. Among his numerous responsibilities is driving the school bus to transport the children. Although he has always been involved in the business, his official employment now adds to the business’ family environment.

Larsen believes a great education starts with a great team. She values the business’ 45 employees and invests in their personal and professional development. She teams with TEACH Iowa to support employees completing their professional certifications and college education. Crayons 2 Pencils and the employee each cover 10 percent of the tuition expense, with TEACH Iowa paying the remaining 80 percent of expenses. The employees even receive 48 hours of paid leave each semester to study and an overnight vacation package upon completion of their education. Crayons 2 Pencils’ Path to Success incentive program rewards employees with gift cards, bowling, special nights out and paid leave for reaching various professional development milestones.

The U.S. Small Business Administration and City State Bank played critical roles in the business’ start-up and growth phases. Larsen financed the start-up costs with an SBA 7(a) guaranteed loan and the building’s purchase and renovations with an SBA 504 loan in partnership with Iowa Business Growth, an SBA Certified Development Company. The bank’s SBA-backed Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan allowed the business to keep its employees on the payroll when enrollment temporarily dropped from 150 to 32 children. SBA’s Debt Relief Program also helped the business’ cash flow with the federal agency making six months of payments on the two existing loans.

As Iowa enters the recovery phase of the pandemic, Crayons 2 Pencils is back to almost full capacity with parents returning to work and children once again playing and learning in what has become their second home.

Jayne Armstrong is the district director of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Iowa District Office with offices in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. The SBA resource network includes 15 Small Business Development Centers, eight SCORE chapters, the Women’s Business Center and the Veteran’s Business Outreach Center servicing Iowa’s small business community.

The U.S. Small Business Administration makes the American dream of business ownership a reality. As the only go-to resource and voice for small businesses backed by the strength of the federal government, the SBA empowers entrepreneurs and small business owners with the resources and support they need to start, grow or expand their businesses, or recover from a declared disaster. It delivers services through an extensive network of SBA field offices and partnerships with public and private organizations. To learn more, visit www.sba.gov.

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