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Affordable Day Care Key for Working Poor

Child care program provides means for families to hold down jobs, stay off welfare.

To support his wife, son and daughter, Edgar Ruanova, 29, works 80 hours a week. In between working full time at a Burger King in Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax and his second full-time job at Red Lobster near his family's home in Centreville, Ruanova picks up his son, nephew and niece from day care at the Main Street Child Development Center in Fairfax.

Ruanova devotes Sundays to spend time with his family — and to sleep.

Manesa Jones, 29, and her children John, 3, and Aimee, 5, aren't so fortunate.

"John's Dad pays what he can, Aimee's father we don't even know where he is. The IRS would like to know, too," said Jones, of Fairfax, who is employed at a doctor's office in Annandale.

"There's no way to pay for day care and rent," she said.

Jones used to pay a baby sitter $105 a week to look after her children. "They didn't do anything but watch cartoons all day," Jones said. "It just got old."

Jones now sends her children to Main Street Child Development Center five days a week. She pays a co-pay set by the county — $32 a week.

"OUR FAMILIES are always kind of teetering on the edge," said Elizabeth Egan, director of Main Street. "For the most part, people are struggling."

Families with limited income and young children in Fairfax, Burke, Springfield and around Fairfax County struggle to pay for housing, child care and food. A county program run through the Office for Children provides help for low-income families to pay for child care. Main Street Child Development Center and other child care centers around the county work in cooperation with parents and the Office for Children to provide child care and access to other services.

"Half of the families [served by this center] make less than $20,000 a year, some of them make less than $10,000 a year if you can imagine that," said Elizabeth Page, of Falls Church-McLean Children's Center.

"The frustration is that this is a very wealthy area … then you look at the median income for families at centers like ours and it's in the 20s. It's a huge discrepancy," said Andrea Parker, of Mt. Vernon-Lee Child Development Center.

WHILE THE MEDIAN family income in Fairfax County was $103,000 a year in 2001, according to the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, most families with children at such centers make in the low to mid 20s. The average rent for any apartment in Fairfax County is well over $1,000, according to the Department of Housing and Community Development.

"Families are coming, then they are relocating because their rent is too expensive or they may find work elsewhere," said Anne-Marie Twohie, of the Office for Children. "I think a lot of families are in flux."

"The high cost of living in the county combined with the high cost of child care makes it difficult to make it on a low- or moderately-low income," said Twohie.

Well over half of the families in Fairfax that might be eligible for such a program don't even know it exists, according to Office for Children surveys.

LOW-INCOME FAMILIES dependent on child care don't have many options for their children or their budgets. Some parents like Ruanova work multiple jobs around the clock.

Single parents often feel there is no other option than to give up work and go on welfare.

"I don't make a bad salary by any means, but to be a single parent in Reston and supporting two kids, I wouldn't be able to do it," said Beth Kubovcik, 27, mother of Jalen, 3, and Shy'an, 2. "That would leave me collecting a [welfare] check when I feel like I'm a responsible person," said Kubovcik, an account coordinator at an insurance company. "There's no way I could afford to pay $200 a week for each of my kids."

ALICA DIAS, also of Reston, made the transition from welfare to work with the help of Fairfax County's and Office for Children. For the past five months, Dias has worked at the Transportation Security Administration. She hopes to attend Northern Virginia Community College part-time in January of 2004 to work towards a nursing degree, aspiring to be a nurse in a labor and delivery room.

"For me to grow more as a parent and to be a single mom, child care is a necessity because I need to be able to take care of my children in the long run," said Dias, 30, the mother of Alexis, 9, and Christian, 5, who attend Laurel Learning Center in Reston.

The Office for Children serves more than 6,578 children from birth to sixth grade on a monthly basis, with care from more than 800 day care providers. Families pay a co-payment — a portion of the cost of child care set by a formula based on income and family size.

Parents have the choice of any legally operating center they want their children to attend, whether that is a licensed child care center or a family child care home. The county pays the remainder of the cost of care directly to the provider.

Some like Main Street Child Development Center in Fairfax devote their services to low-income families.

While most families with children at such centers make co-payments, some parents choose these centers as the best opportunity for their children and pay the full fee themselves.

Janet Schiavone, 38, "wanted a diverse school" for her daughter, who attends Laurel Learning Center.

"For me, it was important for her to be around a lot of different kids from different backgrounds, socio-economic and cultural," said Schiavone, an adjunct professor at George Washington University.

MANY PARENTS who bring their children to Main Street and similar centers work in the service industry, in restaurants, for landscaping services, in department stores or in private homes cleaning. Many work at jobs that pay minimum wage.

The centers mostly operate from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. to accommodate working schedules.

"The whole service industry can erode so quickly," said Egan.

"I've called them the invisible poor. Who is going to clean your house? Who is going to landscape your yard? Who is going to serve you the Big Mac?" said Egan.

And who is going to teach the children?

"The teachers are in the same boat. We're paying our teachers very low rates to do this really important job," said Elizabeth McNally, of Bryant Early Learning Center.

All the directors say they wish they could pay their staff teachers and assistants more.

"I think of professional basketball players. They're responsible for dribbling a ball down the court and they get millions and millions of dollars," said McNally.

EGAN WOULD LIKE to have graduate students study children who leave the centers and go to elementary schools to determine the success the centers have.

Many of the directors say they are saving Fairfax County Public Schools millions of dollars with early intervention when children are two, three or four years old — before they get to Kindergarten. At centers like Main Street Child Development Center and Falls Church-McLean Children's Center and Laurel Learning Center in Reston, children are screened and can be diagnosed with speech, hearing and learning disabilities well before elementary school so they can be hooked into services before they fall behind.

Neyza Alba feels Main Street saved her child's and her life. Alba's daughter Heather was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness that gave her chronic dangerous nose bleeds. The center helped Alba access Medicaid and helped her find resources to pay the doctors. Her medicine can cost up to $500 for a nasal squirt, said Egan.

PARENTS AND DIRECTORS say primary quality child care also teaches children socialization skills that help them in school.

Keeping her children at home every day or sending them to a private baby sitter where they might be the only children there would be "an enormous difference" to her son and daughter, said Kubovcik.

"I love the interaction they get with other kids instead of being at a home day care where they might be the only children. It's amazing all the things they get to do here," she said.

She says affordable quality child care is not an issue the county or the wealthy can afford to hide from.

"It's nice if you can work and drive a nice Mercedes and make $100,000 — this is not an issue for you," said Kubovcik. "But you never know. You might have a daughter that ends up being a single mom and then you might think twice about it."

<tgl>—Delia Berrigan contributed to this story.