Six months into her first pregnancy, family nurse practitioner Alex Chamberlain made her first phone call in search of childcare. “I knew I also had three months maternity leave, so I thought I was planning ahead,” she said. “Then other moms I spoke to said I should have gotten on the waiting list before I even got pregnant!”
Chamberlain and her husband moved to rural Western North Carolina for the mountains, the healthy outdoor lifestyle, and a more relaxed pace than she’d had in urban Ohio. But for the next six months, as she called one center after another with no openings, “the panic set in.”
“I was lucky to win the lottery just before my maternity leave ended,” she said with an audible sigh. A newly opened, licensed family childcare home called Jill’s Little Sprouts had a spot available. “I thought the name was cute, but I was skeptical about home-based care, especially when I learned that the caregiver would have five children under two,” she admits. Nevertheless, she needed care and took the spot.
Six months later, she couldn’t be happier.
“It’s safe, it’s affordable, and my son is totally thriving there. He gets a lot of one-on-one attention, and also interaction with other kids his age. Jill is great about sharing texts and photos, so I know what his day is like. The children are growing together and Jill is growing her business.”
Chamberlain’s predicament is not unique. Across rural America, the lack of childcare is exacerbated by a geography that makes it infeasible to serve most children in large, centralized childcare centers. There’s no public transportation; parents might have to drive 30 miles to get to a childcare center in town. And for those who work second or third shift at a manufacturing plant, or a prison, or at a shipping warehouse—the kinds of employers often found in rural areas–a childcare center that’s open from 8 to 6 isn’t an option.
“Young families don’t stay or don’t move in because they can’t find childcare,” said Ansley Harron, Smart Start of Transylvania County’s early care capacity specialist. “We have the most summer camps in the state. Outdoor adventure is our local economy, but the people who run the camps and resorts, not to mention teaching in our schools or working in our hospital, have no one to care for their kids while they go to work.”
In North Carolina, since the inception of the state’s North Carolina Partnership for Children which administers 200 million dollars of public funding annually to support early childhood education—the bulk of childcare resources and funding has gone toward high-quality childcare centers. But because rural parents often don’t have access to centers or can’t afford them, most young children are cared for at home, by informal caregivers or licensed family childcare providers. In fact, home-based care is the most prevalent childcare arrangement across the nation.
That’s why Transylvania County leaders are taking a new approach: supporting the county’s home-based childcare providers through a comprehensive network that connects and educates the grandmas, aunts, and neighbors taking care of the community’s children and provides the financial and technical assistance to those who want to become licensed child care providers in their own homes.
Funded by a Building Comprehensive Networks grant from Home Grown and regional funders, the network will eventually serve as many as 150 home-based providers. Each provider who signs up for the program receives a developmental tool kit–books, toys, lessons, and sometimes a free tablet that they can use with their children at home. They also get a gift card stipend for attendance at various social or learning activities: story time at the library, playtime at the recreation center, and training on nutrition or safety led by experts.
Finally, and most importantly, they are welcomed into a monthly roundtable which is run by home-based providers just like them. “It might seem like a small thing, but people love the resources,” said Harron. “And the biggest thing is that they feel validated and supported by the network. In conversation with other caregivers, they realize that they are more than just babysitters. Raising children is an important and valued contribution that they are making, often at a great personal sacrifice, not just for their own families or their neighbors, but for the wider community in which they live.”
Building a Pipeline for Licensed Family Childcare Homes
The comprehensive network serves all caregivers in the county, but it’s also designed to expand the pipeline for licensed family childcare homes.
In North Carolina legislation mandates that informal providers can care for no more than two unrelated children in their home, and getting licensed requires meeting a vast number of requirements. Consequently, just 4% of the state’s childcare openings are in licensed family childcare homes, as compared to more than 20% in many other states. “Some counties don’t have a single licensed childcare slot for infants,” according to the Director of the Early Childhood division at the North Carolina Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation, Rob Thompson. “Getting healthy food, or cash assistance, or simply some training on child development or education to the women at home who are taking care of those babies can make all the difference in the health and wellbeing of kids, families, and communities,” said Thompson. That’s why the Foundation is investing $300,000 over the next three years to support Transylvania County Smart Start’s comprehensive network of family, friend, and neighbor caregivers and the technical assistance it provides for those who have the capacity and the desire to get licensed.
Jill Swartz, the owner of Little Sprouts who takes care of Alex Chamberlain’s baby, owes her success to the network and Smart Start’s support. She started taking care of kids on her parents’ back porch while still in high school and for the last thirty years has worked as a private nanny, special education assistant, and preschool teacher. Despite these decades of experience, she wasn’t able to cross the licensing bar without the support of the new program. Then she joined the network and signed up for Ansley Harron’s coaching.
With Harron’s help, Swartz was able to complete “the millions of forms you have to do for your license application.” She updated her certifications for things like CPR, first aid, and safe sleeping (SIDS), and Harron helped her acquire all of the supplies and equipment she would need. The biggest hurdle for Swartz came from the county zoning department. Swartz lives in a 1200-square-foot Habitat-for-Humanity home built on a sloped yard outside of town. “There was no way I could afford the $10,000 bill to fix the drainage and grading that would bring my property up to regulation,” she said. But Harron was able to find a $10,000 grant to pay for it.
“Because of this program, my dream came true.” Swartz said. “I earn more than I did in the daycare center and I am my own boss doing what I love and serving families who really need me.” On the day she opened, Jill had a full enrollment, including Chamberlain’s son—and a bulging waitlist.
“The fact that she’s licensed and someone from the state actually audits the quality of care, and that I look up her rating online makes a difference to me as a parent,” said Chamberlain. “Like many moms I was a mess when I went back to work and left my baby in care for the first time, but Jill’s a really wonderful teacher, so it’s given me such a sense of security to know he’s safe and fed and happy when I’m gone.”
Swartz is now one of two licensed childcare homes in the 381-square-mile county. Both providers received significant technical assistance from Harron, including ongoing coaching focused on the record-keeping and reporting required by the state so that they can accept state subsidies and federal funding for meals, and snacks–a bare-bones reimbursement that makes it possible to keep their businesses afloat.
Sustaining a Resilient Economy
Transylvania County’s long-haul, grass-roots, homegrown solution is designed to increase the county’s childcare capacity over time by supporting all childcare givers and providing technical assistance to those who want to build a successful business as a family childcare home. It’s a big undertaking for a small town, but it holds the promise of big impact for Transylvania county and other rural communities. A 2019 Committee for Economic Development report quantifies the impact for North Carolina at more than 3 billion dollars.
Smart Start executive director Deb Tibbetts and Transylvania county manager Jaime Laughter are the vision behind the initiative, with a long-range view of its impact. Tibbetts noted that every investment in early education is also an investment in education more broadly. Resources for caregivers and the network will boost children’s kindergarten readiness. They are also designed to include and welcome all families in the community, not just those who use the few and full childcare centers. “We also need to reach the Spanish-speaking migrant workers picking our apples and vegetables, the people living 40 miles from town who are working two seasonal jobs, and the people cleaning hotel rooms or working the night shift at Fed Ex,” said Tibbetts. “They are taking care of our retirees, so we as a community need to take better care of their kids.”
Laughter agrees that building the county’s social infrastructure also brightens its economic future. “Today’s babies and toddlers will inherit our economy. Early education is critical to their success, and to our community’s success. We need young, productive workers who want to stay. This is a desirable place to retire, but we need to make it more livable for the parents and children whose employment will support the retirees.”
By incentivizing licensed home-based caregivers to start up and stay in business, and by fortifying informal family, friend, and neighbor caregivers, rural counties like Transylvania (and other rural states like New Mexico, Colorado, and Nebraska) are energizing both their economies and the general well-being of their citizens. “A healthy economy, a healthy community, is one where parents have the ability to work while knowing that their children are safe and supported to learn and grow,” concluded Rob Thompson. “That’s the kind of town we all want to live in.”
Support for this reporting was provided by the Better Life Lab at New America
Anne Vilen writes about child care, education, and mental health from her home in Asheville, North Carolina. As a young mom, twenty-five years ago, she sent her own kids to a family childcare home and traded childcare with neighbors while she worked seasonal jobs–waitressing at a coffee shop, teaching sex education, and counseling at a summer camp. The women who care for our kids, and the community leaders working to support them, are still her heroes.