Can the Vail Valley handle a baby boom?
I’m the type who prides herself on being on top of things.
I arrive to meetings early. I pack extra underwear when I travel and I keep a running to-do list of my work duties just in case I ever have to call in sick.
So when we found out I was pregnant the first phone call I made ” after notifying immediate family, of course ” was to the local social services office to get a list of all the licensed child care centers in the Vail Valley.
And even though I got our name on every waiting list I could, as early as I thought I could, I know I’ll be lucky if I can get full-time child care when I’m ready to go back to work.
Talk to most child care providers who have been in Eagle County for awhile, and they’ll tell you it’s never been easy to get child care. It seems that since the beginning of Vail’s time, most working families have required two incomes to make ends meet. The cost of living here continues to increase, with the average cost of a home ” now $535,350, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ” is out of reach for most working families.
Still, plenty of Eagle County residents are having babies these days. The Vail Valley Medical Center has seen nearly a 40 percent increase in births over the past 10 years. Eagle County’s birth rate almost mirrors the county’s population growth, which jumped 35 percent between 2000 and 2006. And just as our population boom has made our grocery stores more crowded and our streets a lot busier, the valley’s baby boom is having an impact, too.
Cindy Lagace’s career in child care started around the time she started a family. She opened up a home day care center to make ends meet and to allow her to spend more time with her children.
Now, more than 20 years later, she is the director of the Vail Child Care Center. Her center has 55 kids enrolled and can accommodate up to 35 kids per day. Still, the waiting list to get into her center is six months to a year long, she said.
“We highly recommend people getting on the wait list when they are considering getting pregnant,” she said.
The child care shortage has a real impact on local families, as does the cost. Full-time care for an infant costs about $1,000 a month.
The shortage of child care can make the difference between a couple moving here or not, or a couple staying here or leaving.
“I get one to two calls a week with parents in tears needing child care,” she said.
Still, she says Eagle County is a great place to rear young kids. Lagace, who lives in Eagle, says the library there offers plenty of things for children to do. The swimming pool keeps kids occupied and the local recreation departments reach out to families with kid-friendly programs.
Terry Francisco, the director of Vail Valley Medical Center’s Women and Children Center, said sometimes the center gets so full that laboring women have to be placed in neighboring medical surgery rooms.
“Our biggest challenge is that people tend to come in at once,” she said. “It seems like people have their babies at the same time.”
In 1997, the Vail hospital saw 514 births. In 2007, there were 702 births. (The hospital counts births during the fiscal year, which ended in September.) That’s a slight dip since 2006, when the hospital delivered 736 babies, its highest ever. That’s nothing compared to what a metro hospital might see, but consider that Eagle County’s fertility rate (the number of births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44) was 80.6 in 2006 ” nearly 10 points higher than the state average.
The hospital’s maternity ward is equipped to handle the load, though. Since Francisco took over the center in 2003, she has added one more nurse per shift. Part of that is because of the increased demand; part of that is because the increase in births means the hospital is getting more challenging deliveries ” more twins are being born, more pregnant women are coming in with health problems and more babies are sick when they are born.
In 2003, the hospital added a nursery especially to care for premature babies born at 32 weeks gestation and babies that need more care once they are born. When I spoke with Francisco just before Christmas, there were six babies in the nursery; the capacity is seven.
Getting physicians to come to Vail ” and stay here ” is a challenge, said Warren Graboyes, who owns a physician recruitment firm. Graboyes has helped recruit several of the obstetricians who are practicing in the valley. There probably are enough OB/GYNs in the valley to meet the day-to-day patient demand, but physicians here find they have to be “on-call” for deliveries and emergencies more days per week because there are too few of them to spread the work around. For that reason, Graboyes’ group is looking to recruit one or two more obstetricians to the valley.
Eagle County officials also have made families a priority in the past several years. The commissioners approved spending $700,000 in 2007 to jump-start the Bright Start program. The program provides more resources for parents, from home visits from nurses after the baby goes home, to more health screenings for low-income kids and subsidies to make child care more affordable and available.
The total cost of the program is $1.5 million and is being funded with grants, private donations and additional funds from the county.
Just how much government ” and taxpayers ” should help local families is up for debate, with critics loudly arguing that the Bright Starts program is a waste of money and not supported by taxpayers (an effort to pass a tax to fund the program was voted down last November). Lagace encourages parents who are looking for more help to support Bright Starts and efforts like it.
Despite her family’s challenges, the decision to raise kids in Eagle County was the right one.
“I grew up in a large, poor family, I guess I’m used to struggling,” she said.
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