Child care is increasingly hard to find. Photo courtesy of United Way of Southwest Virginia.

Simone Martinez started looking for child care four months into her pregnancy. By the time Zelaina was born, the Lebanon resident still didn’t have a provider.

“I was debating quitting my job even though we really can’t afford it,” said Martinez, who had managed to get her name on a waiting list in March. 

Hundreds of families are on waiting lists.

Right now 31 children are on the waiting lists for Discovery Day Care Inc. and Discovery Day Camp in Lebanon. Sixty-five children are on the waiting list at Miss Amy’s LLC in Abingdon. 

At Rainbow Riders Childcare Centers in Blacksburg, more than 1,100 children are now on the waiting list.

Childcare by the numbers

  • As of October 2020, the average annual cost in Virginia for full-time, center-based care is $14,063 for infants and $10,867 for 4-year-olds, accounting for up to 47% of a single parent’s income.
  • An estimated 47% of Virginia’s residents live in child care deserts with limited access to quality early childhood education programs as of July 2019.
  • Only 5.1% of Virginia children eligible for child care assistance under federal law received it through the Child Care and Development Block Grant in fiscal year 2016, the most recent year for which data are available.
  • Lack of access to quality child care programs disproportionately impacts children from low-income backgrounds as well as children who are Black or Hispanic, further expanding the school readiness gap.
  • In 2019, the median wage for child care professionals in Virginia was $10.96 per hour.

Source: Virginia Promise Partnership

“The ledge is out there. We’re gonna fall off the ledge at some point,” said Kristi Snyder, administrator at Rainbow Riders Childcare Center. “If we don’t have continued investment and subsidies from the state and federal government, the child care industry will collapse.”

The child care shortage is a nationwide problem, made worse by the pandemic. 

In Virginia 47% of residents live in a child care desert, an area where child care options are insufficient. In 2021 more than 44,000 Virginians made career sacrifices because of child care issues.

“We have always been a really fragile industry but COVID has really shined a light on it,” Snyder said. As COVID spread and parents pulled their children out of centers, providers lost essential tuition money. Child care workers, already undervalued, are not paid enough and burned out. Staff turnover plagues centers trying desperately to increase wages while keeping tuition affordable for families.

“Probably 80% of people who work in early childhood [do it] because it’s what’s in their blood. We’re teachers. We love to watch children develop and learn and grow and we’d love to help them and we don’t want to leave this work,” Amy Bowie, owner and operator of Miss Amy’s LLC, said.

Although the problem is complex, in the end it all comes back to money. 

“Learning begins before birth essentially and the brain development that’s occurring in young children between 0 and 5 years of age is incredible. We have that data now. We just don’t have the public policy that supports the data. Brain development is critical during these first five years and we really aren’t making public investments like we need to be, not just to support working families, but first and foremost so that our children are getting a high-quality early childhood education from the very early years,” Snyder said.

In January nine “Ready Regions” were established in Virginia to increase the availability of quality child care services, in part by making it simpler for regions to access and distribute state and federal funding. 

The New River Valley is already seeing some results. 

The United Way of Southwest Virginia is now piloting 12 to 14 new programs funded largely by more than $5 million in new money. 

The money, combined with wide-ranging partnerships, led to the formation of “Ready Southwest,” and are helping the nonprofit lay the groundwork for an employer-sponsored child care benefit program and a Shared Service Alliance.

Ready Southwest, a public-private partnership, has already expanded access to child care to 800 children, according to Travis Staton, president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia.

In September, Staton’s team expects four local companies to begin offering employer-sponsored child care benefits. 

“We’re providing all the technical assistance,” Staton said of the program that would essentially work like employer-sponsored health care benefits do. “We help the employers to stand up these programs. And then through the private funds, we are providing a match.”

The United Way of Southwest Virginia covers 21 localities spanning 7,000 square miles. The 214 licensed child care centers in the region have slots for just 14,000 children. 

Almost 7,000 more children need care. (Statewide more than 11.1 million children potentially need care, with rural areas seeing the greatest need.)

“We’re hoping that over the next two years, our data is going to show [that] employers that offer programs that help employees cover childcare expenses, are going to have better hiring rates and better retention rates than employers that do not,” Staton said. 

United Way of Southwest Virginia is also developing a Shared Service Alliance designed to help child care providers operate more efficiently and reduce their expenses using their combined buying power. 

Long term, the nonprofit wants to raise $20 million to establish five child care centers across the service area — one hub and four satellites.

The No. 1 barrier to working is lack of child care, Staton said. When people can’t find care, they leave. 

“You can look at what population decline projections are for the next 10 years in this region. It’s not good numbers,” Staton said. “We don’t need to lose any more individuals.”

COVID-related subsidies have helped many child care providers keep their doors open.

The expansion of child care subsidies, and an increase in the subsidy rate, are going to be critical moving forward, Snyder said. 

“This is really the path forward to ensure that every family has access to child care, getting the child care subsidy rate increased so that families first of all have access to it. And then maybe pay on a sliding scale based on their income level,” Snyder said.

Providers have ideas, too. 

Bowie, of Miss Amy’s in Abingdon, has been in the industry for 45 years. With space for just 16 children, families have waited up to two years for an opening. Although she closed her waiting list this year — she didn’t want to offer false hope — families still call to beg for a spot for their child.

Recently a local church offered her space to expand but she couldn’t find the staff to pull it off. Even though she is now providing employee benefits, she gets few applicants and even fewer who are qualified.

She wants to partner with Emory and Henry College, Virginia Highlands Community College and King University and provide a work-study program at her center. 

Martinez was able to keep her job because of a local college student. 

Her maternity leave ended just as colleges let out for the summer. Her company brought in a college student to fill Martinez’ spot until school started up again. That extra time was just long enough for Martinez to find a provider for her two girls, now 5 months and 22 months old. 

In Lebanon, Suzanne Potts, the owner of Discovery Day Care Inc. and Discovery Day Camp, wants to see localities do more to help child care providers find adequate facilities and families find much needed transportation. Finding a facility that meets all of the requirements and needs took her five years. 

“If this wasn’t a passion of mine I would have given up long ago,” Potts said. 

She has some families driving from Chilhowie, 90 minutes away, just to get their child to her center. 

“Most people think I’m insane going over 70 kids, you know, and it hasn’t been easy, but it’s what’s needed. And that’s where my daughter and I both are on the same page. If it’s needed, we need to do it because the alternative is these kids are being watched by people that may not take care of them properly, or may not give them the structure and education that they need prior to going to school,” Potts said. 

Amy Trent is a Lynchburg-based journalist. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers....