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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Brittany Palmer holds Isabella Uriarte and she reads to Je'Vanko Stewart and Lillian Jacoby, right, at the Wee Care Center at Utah Valley University in Orem, Monday, Sept. 24, 2012. The Wee Care Center began in 2001 and provides low-cost child care for parents attending UVU.

OREM — For 12 years, Barbara Barrington Jones lived through a physically abusive marriage.

A trained ballerina, Jones wondered how she could make money and provide a future for herself and her children if she were to ever leave her husband.

"All of that time I remember having the fear of 'what will I do?'" she said.

That fear became a reality when her husband took his own life, leaving Jones to raise their two children. She would eventually go on to build a career that includes six books, schools of fashion merchandizing and modeling and the Barbara Barrington Jones Family Foundation — but not before Jones vowed in 1970 to one day help women that were in her same, precarious situation.

Jones has already delivered on that vow many times. In June, she presented a $1 million gift to Utah Valley University for the planned expansion of the Wee Care Center. On Monday, university officials announced that Jones had increased her gift to $2 million, allowing organizers to move forward with a groundbreaking for the center, which provides low-cost day care services for students with children.

In Utah, 26 percent of women have a bachelor's degree or higher compared to 32 percent of men, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services. That gender gap is the worst in the nation, something education officials are working to correct through statewide efforts like the recently-launched Utah Women and Education Initiative and campus-specific programs like UVU's Wee Care Center.

UVU President Matthew Holland said university officials looked at research that showed that a major obstacle for women in education is the availability of reliable, flexible and affordable day care facilities. The Wee Care Center allows students to drop off their children for as little as a single class period at a cost well below market rates based on financial need.

The center is open to all students, he said, but is primarily geared toward low-income mothers working to complete their degrees.

"We think this will be something that will be significantly helpful for the student population," he said. "All you have to do is talk to a few students who have taken advantage of this resource. They are emotional about it, about what this means."

For many adults, day care costs and parenting responsibilities all but eliminate the possibility of pursuing higher education, Holland said. Without the Wee Care Center, and similar parent-focused services at UVU and other universities, he said many students would be simply incapable of attaining a university education. 

"This is an absolute lifeline," he said. "It works for a set of individuals who otherwise would not be able to finish their degrees."

Donating the money to UVU was a "no-brainer" for Jones. While there are a number of reasons why a woman with children would return to school, Jones specifically said she was troubled by the number of Utahns who choose marriage and family over education and fall into hardship when their happily-ever-after romance doesn't pan out.

"I really think it's just a disaster what's happening," she said. "It's so important that women realize what they're capable of."

She visited the Wee Care Center after making her original gift of $1 million and said she was moved to increase her commitment after seeing the tremendous need for the center's services. She also hinted that, if necessary, she might be willing to donate more in the future. 

Jane Urbaska, UVU's associate vice president for development, said the education of women is key to breaking the poverty cycle. Mothers, in particular, pass knowledge to their children, who then pass knowledge to grandchildren.

"When you educate a woman, you really educate a generation," she said.

Jones' latest donation brings the center's fundraising total to roughly $2.8 million, Urbaska said. The total cost of the expansion, which will be built at a new location without interrupting services, is estimated to be between $3 million and $4 million.

Final designs for the new center are expected to be completed in mid-October, Urbaska said, ahead of a December groundbreaking. A "soft" opening of the new center is expected in time for the fall 2013 semester.

Urbaska said the center currently has capacity for approximately 100 children each day — depending on their parent's schedules — but after the 13,500 square-foot expansion is completed the center will have room for 300-400 children.

Yet Urbaska emphasized that the purpose of the expansion is not to make room for more children, but to provide services to a larger number of students with families.

"We want to do our part," she said. "It's a great project for folks to be associated with."

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com