By Emily Stifler
Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

BIG SKY – Morningstar Learning Center launched a capital campaign Dec. 1 that aims to match a $100,000 donation contingent on the nonprofit childcare center doing just that.

The Rapier Family Foundation put the initial $100,000 on the table in early November, challenging the Morningstar board and the Big Sky community to match it. The Rapier’s donation is earmarked to pay off the remaining principal on the childcare facility’s mortgage; the second $100,000 would help cover operational costs, tuition decreases and increased teacher benefits.

“The Rapiers have asked Morningstar to challenge Big Sky,” said board member Tracy Jacobsen. “They want to see Big Sky come together and support [this organization].”

Through this challenge, the Rapiers are encouraging other people to help and give, said Kym Rapier. She’s seen this style of fundraising help build momentum for capital campaigns in the past, she said, noting that the foundation has done ‘challenges’ numerous times before in San Antonio, Texas, where the Rapiers lived prior to moving to Big Sky earlier this year.

The foundation announced the challenge alongside an outright $200,000 donation, which reduced the principal balance on Morningstar’s mortgage by just over two thirds.

To kick off the capital campaign, Morningstar is hosting a holiday gift-wrapping table in the Big Sky Post Office lobby on Saturdays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. through December.

The present wrapping – which is in exchange for donations – “is not an effort to make $50,000 or even $10,000,” Jacobsen said. Instead, it’s a way to draw attention to the campaign and its branding platform: a stack of books, each one symbolizing $10,000 raised.

The board is also planning to host a fundraising event, and Jacobsen mentioned reaching out to every business owner that’s ever had an employee with a child enrolled at Morningstar.

“This is such a need. People have to have childcare,” she said. “Not only that, but stats show that children that go to preschool are automatically higher on the bar when it comes to the alphabet and numbers.”

The only licensed childcare facility in Big Sky, Morningstar opened in April 2006 and purchased its current building at 659 Spruce Cone Drive in September 2011.

Although the center struggled during the economic downturn, “We’ve come a long way,” Jacobsen said. “We have a new board, and we’re focusing on our objectives and goals.”

In addition to paying off the mortgage completely, these goals include implementing a state food program, decreasing tuition, providing health and other benefits for employees, and hiring an executive director.

The center’s capacity is 43 children, which includes infants, toddlers and preschoolers. Between 40 and 50 families use the facility, according to administrator Lindsie Hurlbut, one of 12 staff.

As a nonprofit, Morningstar is funded largely by grants and donations. That poses a challenge when trying to retain staff. Starting wage for a teacher at Morningstar is $10 an hour, with no benefits or sick leave.

“The standard of living is so high here, because rent and food is so expensive,” Jacobsen said.

Even with these challenges, Jacobsen says, “It’s an amazing asset for the children of this community, [the children] that are going to be running this community some day.”