Many welcome Urban League partnership with child care center

CHAMPAIGN – As a single mom with irregular work hours and six small children, Karen Fancher used to spend an hour hauling them to three different child care centers.

Then her boss told her about the Community Day Care School at the corner of Neil Street and Bradley Avenue in Champaign, which has evening and weekend hours, as well as subsidized programs to help low-income parents meet expenses.

For Fancher, a hairstylist from Mahomet, it was a godsend. She has two adopted children, ages 10 and 11, and has taken in four foster children, the youngest just 6 months old.

"I have different hours every week," said Fancher, who sometimes works until 9 p.m. "There isn't anywhere else like that. It's really hard to find someone to take all the different ages, too."

Financial pressures had thrown 37-year-old Community Day Care's future in doubt until a unique partnership was forged last month with the Urban League of Champaign County.

The Urban League agreed to merge with Community Day Care, one of just three child care centers for low-income families in Champaign-Urbana. Operational details are still being ironed out, but the Urban League appointed the center's board members to its own board last month.

"This facility has a rich history in our community," said Tracy Parsons, executive director of the Urban League. "We believe it's something worth sustaining and ensuring that it remains a viable child care facility."

Officials hope the new partnership will secure the center's financial future – and get a long-awaited expansion project back on track.

"We have been treading water for a while," said longtime board member Mary Jo Divilbiss. "The center would not exist five years from now if we were to try to do it on our own."

The new arrangement came about at the behest of the United Way of Champaign County, which provides a substantial chunk of Community Day Care's $250,000 budget. The United Way, which places a high priority on children's programs, had been working closely with Community Day Care for nearly two years, said Bill Kitson, former United Way president, who helped engineer the partnership.

Despite a pressing need for affordable child care, many day care centers are struggling with rising costs. Community Day Care faces special challenges because so many of its clients use subsidized programs with reimbursement rates set by the state, so it can't raise prices. The United Way also cut its allocation to Community Day Care this year by $20,000, saying its weekend child care program was underutilized.

"It became obvious to us at the United Way that we were going to have to suggest something unusual," Kitson said.

The Urban League was a perfect partner for the center for several reasons, Kitson said. First, it has close ties with the community surrounding the center, as well as to many of the families who use it. About half of the children at the center are black, said Director Vicki Stenger.

The Urban League already has programs for job-placement, housing, youth and senior citizens, so this would give the agency "an opportunity to round out services to the community," Kitson added. "It just seemed like a natural extension of Urban League programming. It just made a lot of sense."

Parsons wasn't so sure at first.

"My initial reaction is that the Urban League is not involved in child care," he said. But after researching the issue, he found a number of Urban League chapters across the country that operate child care centers or Head Start sites.

Then, he spent time at the center, met the staff and started working with the board members, and decided "this is something that we wanted to do." Parsons said he hopes the two organizations can complete the merger by the end of the summer.

"From the United Way's perspective, it's a fantastic match," Kitson said. "It puts a critical program in our community into the leadership of a dynamic organization."

Community Day Care gets about two-thirds of its budget from the state in the form of child care subsidies for low-income families and reimbursements for children in foster care. Champaign and Urbana provide community block grants to help defray the costs of the evening and weekend child care programs. And, until this year, the United Way allocated $83,500 to Community Day Care – $39,500 for preschool child care, $24,000 for the evening program and $20,000 for the weekend program.

Interim United Way President Tammi Lemke said volunteers who make funding recommendations felt the $20,000 for the weekend program should be discontinued until the Urban League could do a more thorough needs analysis. The program is expensive because DCFS requires a certain staffing level, even if only a few children show up, she said.

Stenger said the weekend program is full on Saturdays, but sometimes draws just a handful of kids on Sundays. Most families prefer not to have their children in day care seven days a week, and they usually have other options on Sundays – a spouse, grandparent or other relative, she said.

Parsons said he had hoped the United Way would postpone its funding decision until the Urban League had a chance to assess all programs at the center – a process that's still under way. He plans to discuss the situation further with United Way officials "once we have more specifics."

Lemke said the weekend program could "definitely" qualify for funding next year, or a one-time "vision grant," if the Urban League can demonstrate a clear need for the program.

The evening and weekend programs make Community Day Care unique and are prized by parents who work odd hours, Parsons and Divilbiss said. The evening program was created when welfare reforms required more parents to work, and the weekend program was added later for similar reasons, Divilbiss said.

"We're the only place in town that's open until midnight, for second shift or people who work fast food," she said.

Nearly all of the center's children are from low-income families, and they'd have few options if Community Day Care closed, Divilbiss said. Fancher, for example, pays just $30 a month for her two adopted children; the state covers the cost for her foster children.

"We're at capacity right now, and we have waiting lists for all of our programs," Divilbiss said.

The center is licensed for 12 infants and 20 older children, but fire regulations require it to have no more than 25 children in any one program, Stenger said. To expand, the building would have to add a sprinkler system, and Divilbiss said board members would rather put that money toward a new building.

"We need a bigger place. We turn probably three to four parents away a day, and a lot of them have infants and toddlers," Stenger said. "There's a big need for toddler care and infant care."

Community Day Care announced plans for a major expansion seven years ago. The board acquired several lots around the center, hired an architect and even drew up plans for a new building, but the project stalled there. The volunteer board didn't have the expertise or connections to raise money for construction.

"The only way that we could possibly get the funding to build a new building is to affiliate with a larger entity," Divilbiss said.

The Urban League's name recognition and experience should help leverage community resources for the project, Parsons said.

A bigger building would provide room to attract more families from different economic backgrounds and expand the center's educational programming, officials said.

"We want all kids," Parsons said.

The Urban League wants to create an advisory committee for the center, with representatives from the University of Illinois, Parkland College, Head Start, school districts and others.

"In that area, obviously, there's a tremendous amount of need not just for child care, but for a real strong educational learning facility. Many of the kids there are the same ones we want to ensure come to kindergarten ready and prepared to learn," Parsons said.

With Stratton Elementary School and Champaign's new early learning center just down the street, "it's right in the center of where a lot of educational work is being done," he said. "We believe this facility belongs to our community. We'd like to see some community ownership of it."

Vernessa Gipson, educational consultant for the Urban League, envisions more staff training to promote literacy, connect families to services they might need, and support positive behavioral and social development in children. Once the center gets more space, she'd like to add parenting classes and bilingual programs to reach out to the Latino community. It's all part of a "holistic" approach to child development.

"We look at this as an opportunity to embrace kids and families at the same time," she said.

You can reach Julie Wurth at (217) 351-5226 or via e-mail at jwurth@news-gazette.com.

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