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Making it in Big Sky: Morningstar Learning Center

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Morningstar Learning Center’s Mariel Butan (right, with center director, Laura MacPherson) says her favorite thing about working with Morningstar teachers is seeing their love, commitment and patience with their students. PHOTO BY GABRIELLE GASSER

By Mira Brody

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Morningstar was Big Sky’s only nonprofit preschool. The article has been corrected to specify that Morningstar is the only state-licensed, full-time, year-round daycare and early learning center in Big Sky.

BIG SKY – While many visitors may remember Big Sky for its powder days, steep skiing and seasonal events long after they leave, those who live here know the community is much more than a resort town, and requires the services of any other city or town—preschool and daycare being one of them. When it first opened in 2007, Morningstar Learning Center was filled to capacity within three weeks and to this day is is the only state-licensed, full-time, year-round daycare and early learning center in Big Sky.

Today, Morningstar is able to enroll 66 students daily: 16 infants, 22 toddlers and 28 pre-K students and because it operates as a nonprofit, they are able to offer the lowest possible tuition for those who need it, a necessity for a community that experiences the economic disparities that Big Sky is not immune to. Explore Big Sky spoke with Morningstar’s new Executive Director, Mariel Butan, about her love for the area, for her job at Morningstar and how she is inspired daily by her 11, hardworking staff that make the center possible.

The following answers have been edited for brevity.

Explore Big Sky: First, let’s start with a little background information on you, when did you come to Big Sky? How did you get involved with Morningstar and what is your current role?

Mariel Butan: I came to Big Sky in February 2017 to visit a friend. I fell in love with Montana (and the friend), and we’ve been here ever since! I’d been working remotely in nonprofit management but have friends with kids at Morningstar. They approached me about the executive director role in late 2020, early 2021, and I applied and was hired in the spring of 2021.

EBS: Tell me about the history of Morningstar:

M.B.: The nonprofit organization was founded in September 2006 with a goal of finding a permanent home for childcare in Big Sky. It was fully enrolled within three weeks of opening, and we’ve been close to capacity—which is dictated by physical space and staffing—ever since. We wound up in our current building in 2009 after the [economic] crash thwarted plans for a beautiful, state-of-the-art, new building. Especially with how the cost of property here has skyrocketed, we’re so grateful to have the stability of owning our property so that we can focus on our services – taking care of Big Sky’s littlest as they learn and grow!

EBS: As Big Sky grows, how has Morningstar adapted their services?

M.B.: First, Laura MacPherson (our center director) has been spearheading incredible enhancements to our programs at MLC. That L stands for learning, and providing a safe and enriching environment focused on whole child development is Laura’s and my top priority. We have also been having a lot of conversations with our board and partners about the needs of this community, how Morningstar can meet them, and where other entities need to step up to fill in some of the gaps. We’re a town with highly seasonal employment that often includes nights, weekends, and holidays, and we’re just not equipped to offer childcare that meets everyone’s needs. However, we’re committed to doing what we can, such as continuing to offer part-time enrollment to support families’ choices and schedules.

EBS: How big is your team and what is your favorite thing about working with them?

M.B.: Right now we have two people on the admin team and 11 teachers. We’re hiring! My favorite thing about working with Morningstar teachers is seeing them with the children. Their love, commitment, and patience—not to mention willingness to change lots of diapers—are truly inspirational.

EBS: What is your favorite memory working at Morningstar?

M.B.: I don’t get to interact with the kids all that much because my responsibilities are so tied to the office and meetings, so the interactions I do have with them mean a lot to me. A few stand out as my favorites, like the smiles I get in the infant center, hugs from friends’ kids who have started to recognize me, and the time a girl in Pre-K asked whose mom I was. I said “I’m nobody’s mom; whose mom are you?” She laughed so hard!

EBS: What is the best part of working at Morningstar?

M.B.: The best part of working at MLC is doing something to help my own community, hands down. I’ve done so much work that I’m really proud of helping others across the country and in other countries, but this is the first time that if I do a good job, people in my own backyard will live better lives. Kids where I live will have a brighter future. It’s a lot of pressure, too! 

EBS: What is the best business advice you have ever received?

M.B.: I once told someone that I didn’t see myself as a leader but “just” as a supporter of other people. He said that supporting others is the very definition of leadership, or at least one approach to leadership, and that really gave me a new perspective. It’s had a lot of influence on how I show up and make decisions.  

EBS: Anything else you would like to add?

M.B.: One thing that encouraged me to take this job and that has continued to amaze me is how people in Big Sky work together to make things happen, both on an individual and business level. I’m really grateful for all the support I’ve had so far being new to this role, from the board, families, funders, other organizations, random people on the street who find out I’m doing this, and most importantly, MLC’s unbelievably hard-working teachers and staff!

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