Raising kids in Eagle County | VailDaily.com

Raising kids in Eagle County

Sarah L. Stewart
Dominique TaylorJack Ryan, 3, climbs over a bubble as Elly Weist, 5, peeks out of a tunnel in the Freedom Park playground in Edwards.

Terry Kausch wishes he could spend less time driving from his home in Gypsum to his Avon business, Valley Automotive & Tire, and more time ferrying his 8-year-old daughter, Shannon, to after-school activities. He sounds weary when he talks about daycare costs and a lifestyle he calls a daily struggle, but Kausch accepts a simple reality shared by many of the valleys parents: He must work, and work hard, just to make ends meet for his family.Its not easy in this valley, thats for sure, says Kausch, a single father. Its always a juggle.Yet Kausch chooses to stay here, and says hell never leave the valley. Shannon is excelling in school, has made friends, and the valley is her home. Her dads business has developed a following, and he, too, has a network of friends who help with Shannon when he cant be there.Raising kids anywhere requires patience, hard work and support from the community. But in a valley where housing and child-care costs are as spectacular as the natural beauty and recreational offerings, is family life better or worse here than other places? Thats not an easy measurement to make, but looking at the major factors affecting parents and kids the good, the bad and the more nuanced offers a glimpse into the reality of family life here, and the reasons why parents like Kausch choose to stay.

When Family Circle magazine released its list of the 10 Best Towns for Families last year, a common thread emerged among the towns beyond good schools and laid-back living: affordable housing. In only one of the towns did the cost of housing approach that of Eagle County, as measured by median home price as a percentage of median income. In 2006, that figure was 649 percent for Eagle County; for the majority of towns on Family Circles list, it was below 400 percent.The lack of affordable housing is a big burden for many of the countys families, causing trickle-down effects from overwork to too little time spent with children, says Susie Davis, executive director of The Youth Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to help disadvantaged Eagle County kids.In 59 percent of local families with children under the age of 6, both parents work, according to the 2006 Report on Early Childhood in Eagle County.So many parents have more than one job, Davis says. When you have to work more than one job, those dinnertime conversations are the things that really suffer.Christine Thurston, a single mother of 6-year-old Nia and 9-year-old Aeslyn, works just one job as general manager of ServiceMaster Commercial Cleaning Solutions in Eagle but it requires 60 to 70 hours per week. To avoid interfering too much with time with her daughters, Thurston often works at home after they have gone to bed. Though she says she enjoys living in Gypsum and feels blessed to have the job she has, money is tight, she says.Thurston and others like her are proof that the countys cost of housing burdens more than just lower-income residents.What were seeing in Eagle County is a squeezing out of the middle class, says County Commissioner Arn Menconi. My wife and I, and others in the middle class, were just barely hanging on.

After the birth of her son, Henry, nearly two years ago, Sarah Bell planned to return to work at her husbands property management firm. One catch: The West Vail resident ran into one waiting list after another at local daycare centers.Its a common tale in Eagle County, where getting a child into daycare often takes longer than pregnancy itself. Bell put Henry on the waiting list for Childrens Garden of Learning in Vail when he was born, and only this summer will he start attending two days per week. Bell calls the wait a blessing in disguise that changed her attitude toward being a stay-at-home mom. But for families who depend on two salaries, that blessing can be a burden.Jeanne McQueeney remembers the trouble she and her husband, both teachers, had finding daycare for their children, now teenagers.Child care was a horrible problem with my daughter 16 years ago, McQueeney says. We worked it out, but it was a hassle. And its not improved in 16 years.McQueeney, now a member of the Eagle County Board of Education, has focused her energy on improving early childhood care, supporting county programs that aim to make child care more available and affordable.One such program offers financial assistance for child care to families that meet certain income requirements for a single parent with one child, they must make less than $31,500 per year. Forty families are enrolled in the program; each pays 7 to 14 percent of child-care costs, and the program pays the rest.For others, like Bell, the problem is less a lack of money than a lack of available daycare centers. Theyre willing to pay, but theres nowhere to pay, McQueeney says.

Few places in the country offer the recreational opportunities that are available in Eagle County. Skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, ice skating and sledding in the winter; hiking, biking, rafting, camping, jogging and an array of other sports in the summer. Recreation is a big part of why many adults choose to live in Eagle County, and that doesnt change when those adults become parents.For Thurston, the areas outdoor activities are one of the biggest benefits of raising her children here. Many parents even those whose kids have grown and moved away from the valley echo her sentiments.Madeline Reid, who lives in Edwards with her parents and 2-year-old brother, Everett, got about 25 days on the mountain this ski season pretty good for a 5-year-old. Katie Bruen, who was born and raised in the valley and hopes to raise her own family here, says her decision to return after living in several other cities speaks to how she feels about the area.But 27-year-old Bruen, marketing and event coordinator for The Youth Foundation, knows all too well that her childhood isnt the same experience many of the countys children have today. Despite efforts by The Youth Foundation, S.O.S. Outreach Society and other local nonprofits to offer disadvantaged kids ways to participate in the recreational activities that make the valley special, some still are missing out.Not all kids that grow up here have those same opportunities, Bruen says. Shes talked to some schoolchildren who are dreading summer vacation because it means they will spend most of their days indoors, caring for younger siblings and watching TV, since their parents cant afford to send them to summer camps.Thats tragic, she says.

Compared to the rest of Colorado, most of Eagle Countys schools have earned high marks on school accountability measures.Eleven of the districts 17 public schools scored high or excellent on overall academic performance on state assessments for the 2006-2007 school year. Only two, Avon Elementary and Red Canyon High School, scored low.Davis of The Youth Foundation feels the countys public schools prepared her son and daughter well for their two very different futures one attended a technical school, the other went beyond college for a masters degree.But the story is often different for Hispanic students, who tend to score much lower on state measures like the Colorado Student Assessment Program test, often because they arent proficient in English.Jeanne McQueeney hopes to help close the achievement gap between Hispanic and Anglo students with the countys early childhood development program, BrightStart. From creating incentives to retain child-care workers to the Network of Care, a Web site that provides access to parenting resources in the county, McQueeney believes kids will be better prepared once they start school as a result of BrightStart.I am very optimistic, she says. I think were in an amazing place right now in that everyone realizes that early childhood is important.

Support Local Journalism

When Menconis 3 1/2-year-old daughter fell off her bike and lost a tooth recently, help wasnt far away. Three of Menconis acquaintances, all with medical backgrounds, rushed to her aid from a nearby restaurant; a dentist, also a friend of her father, agreed to see her over Memorial Day weekend.Were very grateful, as parents, for having such caring adults, Menconi says. Your neighbors know your childrens names.The valleys small-town sense of community, from running into friends at the grocery store to low violent crime rates, is a big appeal for many Eagle County parents.Rosie Moreno, early childhood services supervisor for the county, has valued this aspect of Eagle County life from the time her three children now ages 13, 18 and 21 were riding their bikes around the neighborhood to now, when the older ones head off un-chaperoned on camping trips with friends. It was the kind of childhood from many years ago, Moreno says.Terry Kausch has come to depend on the community to help care for his daughter. Friends offer a kind of extended family support network, taking Shannon to the Gypsum Recreation Center when Kausch cant get off work to take her himself.I really count on my friends, Kausch says. Thats really the only way I can manage.

A small, close-knit community can be a good and bad thing when it comes to raising teenagers here, says Janet DeClark, co-founder of the Eagle County Parent Network and mother of three kids ages 17, 19 and 22. She considers the county a great place to raise children, but it gets more difficult once they become teenagers, she says. The teen years can be rocky just about anywhere, but in a small community, DeClark says, sometimes the pressures of youth are exaggerated.It really is hard for kids to kind of set themselves apart and define themselves, she says. Were not big enough to have a lot of different cliques.Particularly when it comes to drug and alcohol use, the number of kids who use can seem magnified, because just about everyone knows someone whos been in trouble for drinking or drug use, she says.Not everyone is doing it, DeClark says. It just sure feels like it.A recent survey of 853 high school students conducted by the Eagle River Youth Coalition found about 47 percent said they had at least one drink of alcohol in the past 30 days, and 31 percent said they had five or more drinks in a row in the past 30 days. About 22 percent said they had used marijuana at least once in 30 days.DeClark co-founded the Parent Network to give parents of teenagers a forum to support each other and bring problems like drug and alcohol abuse out of the shadows. Along with offering teenagers more alternatives to partying, DeClark sees community support as an important part of making it easier to be a teenager and be the parent of a teenager in Eagle County.There were a lot of things that were available when our kids were younger, she says. It feels a little bit like when they hit adolescence, OK, youre on your own.

Like most places, quality of healthcare in Eagle County depends a lot on what a family can afford. The valley hosts some top-notch doctors, and many parents compliment the willingness of their childrens physicians to see them outside of normal hours.But quality care comes at a price, which is sometimes higher here than in larger cities. Thurston has found that simple procedures, like a dental cleaning, are covered by her insurance at usual and customary prices i.e. Denver prices meaning shes had to pay extra out of pocket.Thats kind of irritating, she says.For the uninsured or underinsured, the Eagle Care Clinic in Edwards offers medical services at Medicaid rates, generally about 30 percent of usual and customary fees.They have filled a huge need in the community, Moreno says, but shed like to see more of such clinics.Another part of the countys healthcare equation that affects residents of all incomes is the availability, or lack thereof, of certain specialists. If you need knee surgery, youre in the right place. But for some other problems, families must turn to surrounding counties or the Front Range in search of specialized medical care.When Thurstons youngest daughter faced medical problems as an infant, she had to make many trips to Denver to get the care she needed. DeClark sees a gap in adolescent services here, such as counseling for drug and alcohol use, eating disorders and other more common teenage problems.Eagle County parents of children with special needs or disabilities face other challenges, and some see a gaping hole in service to that sector. But Moreno, whose youngest daughter has a disability, has found the valley a supportive and caring place, despite having to travel to see some specialists. Though she recognizes it might not be the case for all families in her situation, Moreno says her daughters inclusion in school and the community has been crucial to her development.Theres some trade-offs, Moreno says. Its not perfect. It is a balance. Sarah L. Stewart can be reached for comment at (970) 748-2982 or sstewart@vailtrail.com.

Support Local Journalism