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Scrambling for child care

Tamara Miller
Matt Inden/The Vail TrailJake, Gabrie, and their very focused six-month-old son, Sam Higbie, spend some time together reading a book in Sam's room.
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Gabrie Higbie spent several sleepless nights worrying she would not be able to find child care for her infant son.

She worried about money; she had quit one job before she gave birth to Sam and was getting ready to start a new one. For three months after Sam was born, she and her husband has subsisted on his paycheck.

“I started calling some daycare centers and everyone was like, ‘you should have called when you first got pregnant,'” Higbie said. “Even my friends’ daycare places were full, so I panicked.”

How am I going to work? she wondered. How am I going to have this baby? she thought to herself.

She put her name on waiting lists for several local child-care centers. Even preschools, which generally don’t accept children younger than 3, had two-and-a-half-year waiting lists.

After Sam was born, Higbie took a job selling ads for The Zephyr radio station three times a week. Her employer allowed her to bring Sam into work with her for awhile, then she found a nanny to watch Sam on the days she worked.

“To this day, I still have not been called for a child care spot,” she said.

Many new Eagle County parents find themselves in a similar dilemma. It’s a problem of numbers, to put it quite simply: County officials estimate there are about 2,200 children under the age of 6 that need childcare and only 917 spaces available in the county’s licensed childcare centers.

That means hundreds of moms and dads have to come up with other ways to fill the gap.

So concerned with the child care shortage, county officials are building a child care center in the Edwards Miller Ranch neighborhood. The center, which will be run by the Eagle Valley Child Care Association (which also runs the Vail Child Care Center), will have about 80 spots. Factor in that most families don’t need full-time child care, and county officials expect to accommodate about 140 kids a week. Kathleen Forinash, the county’s health and human service director, said the center is scheduled to partially open on March 13 and should be fully open by the first part of May.

The waiting list for this center began nearly three years ago, when county officials began discussing the idea of building a center.

“Miller Ranch is making a dent, and a lot of the efforts to increase the capacity of child care is making a big difference,” Forinash said. Still, only about half of the families needing childcare are getting it.

Connie Diaz, the director of the Pooh Corner child care and preschool center, has worked in child care in the Vail Valley since 1987. Demand for child care has grown every year and right now, she said, she has children on her toddler waiting list who aren’t even born yet.

The waiting list for infants at the Vail Child Care Center is about two years long, said Cindy Lagace, that center’s assistant director.

“I just feel like there are more people who want or need two family incomes to survive in this valley,” Legace said.

There is much talk about the ever-rising cost of living in Eagle County, where the median cost of a home is about $350,000 and the median family household income is just more than $70,000. But some argue that there are families who can afford to have a parent stay at home.

“I think some of it is greed-driven,” Diaz said. “A lot of parents work to have the extras.”

Despite the crunch on child care spots, many working parents have been able to come up with their own solutions. One working couple I know was able to adjust their work schedule so that either mom or dad was home most days of the week. On the days when that wasn’t possible, a babysitter came in to take care of their son. Another couple has a nanny come in to watch their daughter. Nannies and babysitters also are in demand and, therefore, paid higher than one might expect for their service.

Higbie pays a nanny $12 an hour to watch her son when she isn’t at home. So far, she is bringing in more than she is paying out for childcare.

Amy Paderewski put her name on child care waiting lists when she was pregnant, but didn’t hold out much hope that she would find a spot once her son was born. She learned of a woman who was providing child care in her home and put her name on the list there, too. After her son was born, the woman “was really the only one to call back.”

Her son, now 20 months old, goes to child care twice a week. Paderewski pays a babysitter $10 an hour to watch her son on the other days. Because Paderewski is a tutor, she rarely works full eight-hour days.

“It’s difficult, but not impossible (to find child care),” she said. “But it doesn’t seem like there are a lot of good options.”

Childcare also is expensive, Paderwski said. She has friends who pay up to $70 a day to have someone watch their child.

Lagace worked double-shifts twice a week so she could stay home with her baby. Her husband adjusted his schedule as well to make sure he could be home when she wasn’t.

When expectant parents call to get their child on the Vail Child Care Center’s waiting list, her staff also suggests other solutions that might work in the meantime. Teaming up with other working parents to trade-off childcare is a popular solution. Even one of Legace’s staffers uses that option.

Other families decide to forgo the stress and expensive of finding child care by opening up their own centers, she said. Eagle County, along with officials in Pitkin and Garfield counties, are trying to support that effort by creating a tri-county home childcare licensing program. An employee for the program works with local families to help them have a licensed child-care service. The county also provides training and evaluations for local childcare centers.

Diaz offers to hire parents to work at Pooh Corner in exchange for free tuition. It helps solve the family’s problem – getting childcare and making ends meet, as well as her industry’s problem – getting good employees. “We get some really good people that way.”


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