OREM — In shared curiosity and enthusiasm, a crowd gathered at the back end of a brick house, along a makeshift playground with a shed colored in fingerpaint Wednesday morning at Utah Valley University, where UVU President Matthew Holland announced a gift of $1 million from Barbara Barrington Jones toward a planned $2.2 million expansion of the Wee Care Center. "It's a project that will transform the lives not just for the students, but for the lives of those after them," Holland said. "Today we come to a reality."

The Wee Care Center began in 2001 and provides low-cost child care for parents attending university classes. The center currently has capacity for 100 children, but with the donation announced Wednesday that capacity will grow.

UVU officials say the expansion is part of a larger university effort to make higher education more accessible to more women.

"I know what it's like to be a single mom," Barrington Jones said, "and I know the pain and I know the fear of what am I going to do next, and I decided at that point in my life that I would dedicate my life to helping women, helping women that had been through the same things I'd been through."

"Expanding the Wee Care Center is one of my most important intiatives this year," Holland said. "I aim to provide as much care as possible for the young women and children of this campus, especially those in need. I've met with architects, and we've found a way to triple the size of the Wee Care Center on the existing site, developing its capacity to more than 450 children. This new facility will provide critically needed classrooms, roomier play and napping areas, and an updated kitchen. It will be a comfortable, beautiful, supportive environment for our students' children."

Jessica Steele, mother of two, graduated with a bachelor's degree in community health education from UVU in 2012. Without the Wee Care Center, Steele says this couldn't have been possible. Her son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at just 18 months old and later diagnosed with Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease, which required two hip surgeries. "I couldn't have graduated without the help of the Wee Care Center," Steele said. "The center offered affordable day care that only was for the times that I just needed to take classes, which allowed me to not only go to school, but to still be a mom a the same time."

Plans to meet a goal of raising a total of $2.2 million for the center's expansion are underway. "I've already heard of one other gift coming in today," Holland said. "I'm hoping that in response to this, other people will step forward and we'll be able to close the gap."

EMAIL: rlowry@desnews.com