Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Editor’ note: Today, the Journal continues its Help for the Holidays series, which spotlights areas in which community members can reach out to neighbors in need.
Casey Mason knew when the pandemic hit that not working wasn’t an option for her.
The mother of two children – a daughter age 7 and a son who turns 5 this month – needed dependable child care for that to happen. Mason shares custody of her children with her ex-husband, who also works full time. She’s a high school teacher at La Academia de Esperanza Charter School in the South Valley, and although she works from home, she said, it would not be possible to care for her children while conducting online classes.
“Without Christina Kent Early Childhood Center, I would not be able to work,” she said. “I don’t know how I would be able to be a professional at all.”
Her son attends the center full time, and her daughter is home with her, although someone comes to help her and another student with school while Mason works. She said she chose the center because of its history and dedication to working families.
Christina Kent is a nonprofit center that opened in 1919 as a nursery for low-income working mothers. It still operates on a sliding fee scale.
Executive Director Sondra Carpenter said the center went from having a year-long wait list to having low enrollment because of the pandemic.
“Our mission is to focus on keeping that sliding scale in place to keep families working without worrying about the high expense of child care,” Carpenter said. “Donations and fundraising help us to remain viable.”
The continued operation of the Christina Kent center and many other child care services across the state is essential to making sure parents are able to still work. But the pandemic has slashed enrollment and left the Christina Kent center and many other child care providers struggling to operate with severely reduced revenue.
Dina Araujo, director of the nonprofit Early Learning Preschool, a parent co-op in Rio Rancho, said the school has been operating at about 40% capacity. The school’s main source of revenue is tuition. She said many of the parents are essential workers, including nurses, firefighters and police officers.
“I believe there are a lot of reasons (for the decrease in attendance),” she said. “Parents are home from work, so they don’t need it. Some are afraid their children will come and catch something.”
Julie Jaramillo’s 4-year-old son attends the 37-year-old school, and she serves on its board. She said that grants have helped the school remain open but that it’s still a struggle. The normal school day is five hours, and the co-op is no longer able to offer extended care.
“As a parent, you look at the low teacher-to-student ratio and think, ‘What a blessing,'” she said. “But as a board member, it’s not.”
Chris Walsh is a storyteller and marketing person for Children’s Choice Child Care Services. The group normally offers before- and after-school care in 13 Albuquerque elementary schools. He said the pandemic initially forced the group to shut down the program.
The program was allowed back into APS schools this fall, but only in six locations instead of 13. Programs are from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday and help attendees with their online schooling and provide extracurricular activities.
“We are here for families that absolutely need it,” he said.
Most of their funding comes from tuition and state funding provided to low-income families for child care.
There is not a structured curriculum, Walsh said. Instead, children are allowed to explore their own interests and staff is encouraged to share their own hobbies with the children. Activities have included art, theater, sports and cooking.
Students are also allowed to play outside if they prefer physical activities.
“We (the program) had a lot of growth up until this,” he said. “Things have drastically changed. … We had to reduce the amount of staff we had.”
PB&J has been a staple for at-risk families in New Mexico for decades.
Danielle Velasquez, PB&J coordinator of client records, said its families are dealing with issues such as substance abuse, domestic violence and developmental and cognitive delays. The organization serves about 800 families in Bernalillo, Sandoval and Valencia counties.
The center was started in 1972 to help seven children and their families who had parents struggling with mental illness. The program focuses on the entire family, not just the child.
The organization has kicked into high gear this year to help families during the pandemic.
“During this trying time, PB&J remains open,” states its website. “More than ever, we are aware of the need for keen focus on child abuse prevention. We know that families facing heavy stress with few supports can become unsafe.”
PB&J attributes much of its success to community support in the form of volunteers and donations including food, books, toys and money.
Velasquez said the most pressing essential needs for the program’s families now are personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, diapers, wipes and baby formula.
The group is also asking the community to adopt a family for its holiday wish program. Families are asked to provide a wish list that is shared with donors that includes the first name of each family member, clothing and shoe sizes and any special interests. Donors are then asked to provide unwrapped gifts for the families.
“The purpose of the holiday wish program is to help struggling families during the holidays,” Velasquez said. “… The goal is to get the families some essential items as well as some extra toys and books for the children they may not otherwise be able to provide themselves. This year, we have seen a huge increase in the amount of families in need.”
Meanwhile, Christina Kent has two child care classes and a preschool class and this year has added an elementary classroom.
In addition to reduced enrollment, Carpenter said the school has had to deal with increased expenses for cleaning supplies and staff. Teachers and students are not allowed to intermingle with other classrooms to prevent the spread of the virus.
Ali Ward works in a bike shop, and her 4- and 6-year-old children attend Christina Kent, which she calls an “amazing resource.” She said she knows most of the staff and many of the children.
Before the elementary class was added this fall, Ward said, she was struggling to find a place to send her daughter, because schools have been online-based this year.
“I don’t really have a support system here,” she said. “I would not be able to work without them, out of an income and home collecting unemployment or stimulus or whatever is available.”