To help address the shortage of child care, particularly culturally relevant child care, in rural Maine, a nonprofit community development financial institution is accepting applications for a business incubator that teaches how to run a child care business. 

Coastal Enterprises, Inc., is offering its Child Care Business Lab for a new cohort starting in March 2022. The program provides entrepreneurs with the tools they need to start a small business, said Cynthia Murphy, senior program director of workforce solutions at CEI. The six-month program is free to all participants, thanks to funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and various foundations. 

“I was looking at data in the more rural parts of Maine,” Murphy said in an interview with The Daily Yonder. “I noticed this real discrepancy in the more rural parts of our state, where we had higher rates of unemployment, higher rates of poverty, high rates of part-time and part-year employment, and low rates of all parents in a household participating in the workforce at all. And then laid on top of that, there was a low percentage of child care slots for children, five and under.”

Murphy started thinking about the importance of child care, and participated in some listening tours across the state. She learned about some of the challenges people face with child care, particularly among immigrant, refugee and communities of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC).

“What we do is, we integrate small business, startup education, with everything that someone needs to know from a child care standpoint,” she said. 

Since the launch of the Child Care Business Lab in March 2020, 11 new businesses with 144 child care slots have opened and several more are in the final stages of being licensed, with another 100 child care slots expected in the next six months.

The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the need for child care, Murphy said. 

“I think that parents who are working from home or were working from home and did potentially have their children at home, at various times, I think they really saw the value and the importance of having child care here in the state of Maine,” she said. 

“About 50% of the child care businesses stayed open throughout the pandemic. So we didn’t have closure of child care in the state like other states. Here in the state of Maine, it was very much recognized that child care was important for essential workers.” 

Juana Rodriguez-Vazquez is interim executive director of Mano en Mano, or Hand in Hand, in Milbridge. She noticed that her first child was exposed to bilingual language education in child care, while her second child did not have that opportunity. So she wanted to offer that opportunity to migrant and bilingual families. 

“Just from talking to parents and having conversations, and even my own experience about the importance of the younger ages, and how important it is, I wanted to bring that back into the community and have a bilingual child care center,” she said. 

CEI helped her understand the process of opening a center and the paperwork and details needed, she said. 

The center currently has 12 children enrolled, the maximum capacity, Rodriquez-Vazquez said. Eventually, she hopes to increase the capacity. 

“I think child care centers play a big role in the future of children,” she said in an interview with The Daily Yonder. “ And I think it is really important to incorporate the language and the culture and the children as a whole into the environment.”

CEI is currently accepting applications for the 2022 Child Care Business Lab for people living in Aroostook, Franklin, Hancock, Oxford, Penobscot, Piscataquis, Somerset and Washington counties. There is also a French-language application for those living in Lewiston. 

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