ARLINGTON, VA - As the Gulf Coast slowly rebuilds from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, residents are returning home. Although housing is still limited, it is becoming sufficient enough that a new barrier is emerging: a shortage of child care.
Like everyone else, child care professionals have been displaced to neighboring states. But now more than ever, especially as schools let out for the summer, they are needed back home. "The rebirth of the Gulf Coast is dependent on the accessibility of affordable, high-quality child care," says Linda Smith, executive director of National Association for Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA). "That accessibility is dependent upon caregivers returning home."
In Mississippi, they have developed an informal system to transfer staff to centers less affected by Katrina while those devastated are restored. But child care program directors say they still need more staff, a shortage that is predicted to grow as more centers and family child care homes get back on their feet.
More directors are needed to open and reopen centers, too. With 80 percent of licensed child care centers in Orleans Parish and many in Mississippi's three coastal counties still closed in the wake of Katrina, virtually every program presently open is filled to capacity. Local Child Care Resource & Referral agencies (CCR&Rs) are receiving calls every day from parents who cannot return home without child care. They are depending on caregivers to lead them home.
Helen Green, interim director of Hume Child Development Center, is scrambling to rehire former employees and recruit new ones. She knows of only two of her 14 employees who plan to return, and she has less than three months to find a dozen more. Pearlie Harris, owner and director of Royal Castle Child Development Center, faces similar challenges. With only four of her 20 former staff planning to return, a large "Now Hiring!" sign hangs on the front of her center.
Despite staffing obstacles, dedicated CCR&R professionals are working to rebuild facilities. During a volunteer work day coordinated by NACCRRA and New Orleans United Way Success by 6 on June 9, volunteers - 35 in all - representing NACCRRA and various CCR&Rs from across the country donated a half-day to restore Royal Castle and Hume.
"Child care is my passion. I really love what I'm doing, "Harris said. "A lot of kids I work with don't have much, and I love to see them have lots of wonderful toys to play with while learning at Royal Castle."
Dedication to children and families in her hometown of New Orleans is similarly what fuels Judy Watts, executive director of Agenda for Children, a CCR&R serving southern Louisiana. "If we don't rebuild child care, New Orleans will be a city without children - and a city without children has no future," she says.
Watts encourages former caregivers and providers to return home, and urges others that there could not be a better time to open a child care center or family home. "If you are a child care provider or would like to be one, Agenda can help you obtain employment, open or reopen a center, or become a home-based provider," she says.
In Mississippi, the Gulf Coast CCR&R is similarly helping professionals get back on their feet, connecting them with employment opportunities, recovery resources, and training options.
Dr. Cathy Grace of Mississippi State University's Early Childhood Institute notes that unconditional relief assistance has revitalized child care professionals' self-perception of their value. "Child care owners and teachers are really seeing their importance to the community, and are experiencing a new sense of professionalism," she says. "This may help with filling the staffing needs throughout the region."
At the same time that it's providing support to recovery along the Gulf Coast, NACCRRA is working to prevent a child care disaster of this magnitude from ever happening again. It is partnering with agencies in the first-ever nationwide child care emergency planning initiative. In July, it will release a disaster-preparedness planning guide.
"As we rebuild child care along the Gulf Coast, we need to apply the lessons we've learned across the nation," says NACCRRA's Smith. "Only then will we be prepared to protect our children during the next disaster…no matter where it happens."
For assistance in Louisiana, contact Agenda for Children at (504) 586-8509; in Mississippi, contact the Gulf Coast CCR&R at (228) 669-4827. To make a donation toward the rebuilding of child care destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, contact these nonprofits directly.