Mar 24, 2015St. Albans Messenger
Elodie Reed
ST. ALBANS — Andrea Santiago wasn’t exactly ready when her son, Gibson, came along in August. He was born three months premature

“We just weren’t prepared at all,” said Santiago, a 21-year-old Bellows Free Academy-St. Albans graduate in a recent interview.

In addition to not having clothes, supplies or any other baby items, Santiago – who is in a relationship with Gibson’s father, Nausori Osasa, 32 – didn’t have maternity leave from her job at Maximus Call Center, and she had to quit her job.

Santiago couldn’t start working again until December. Gibson was in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at the University of Vermont Medical Center, and after he was released at two and a half months old, doctors told Santiago to keep him home.

“They didn’t recommend we put him in daycare for the first winter at least,” said Santiago.

Santiago, Osasa and their son lived in one room in Osasa’s parents’ Georgia home for months, with Osasa being the main financial support for Santiago, Gibson and the numerous bills they had.

“At the end of every week, [Osasa] was broke,” said Santiago.

Due to Osasa’s income from his job at Baker Distributing, Santiago said she didn’t qualify for state benefits – Reach Up, 3SquaresVT, fuel assistance – despite the fact that she was unable to work.

“We didn’t qualify for anything,” said Santiago. “It was a very difficult few months.”

Santiago did receive some help from WIC Vermont with purchasing special formula for Gibson, though she added that those benefits decrease as Gibson grows older.

Santiago is now able to work part-time on nights and weekends as a personal aid for someone with special needs through Northwestern Counseling & Support Services (NCSS). She does that when Osasa comes home from third shift to watch Gibson – now seven months old – which helps.

Though Santiago has looked at local daycares for Gibson in and effort to free up more working hours, she said the cost and the risk of Gibson not getting the attention he needs makes it seem not worth it. It’s also difficult to find a spot for infants.

This has created an ongoing challenge for Santiago and Osasa.

“I think the hardest thing about childcare in Vermont is finding good care that’s affordable and for an infant, specifically,” said Santiago. “It’s been so [hard] to figure out how I can support myself and my family.”

Statewide problem

Stories such as Santiago’s about struggles with affording childcare are not uncommon according to Let’s Grow Kids Executive Director Robyn Freedner-Maguire. The organization continues to hear of similar cases as it runs an online “Cost of Childcare” social media campaign on its Facebook page.

“It’s definitely becoming more and more of an issue,” said Freedner-Maguire in an interview last week. “In today’s social structure, you have to have both parents in the workforce.”

Freedner-Maguire, quoting a 2014 Child Care in the State of Vermont study by Childcare Aware of America, said 62 percent of children under six years old have two parents in the workforce.

According to the same study, 73 percent of mothers with children under six are working in Vermont. The state’s average cost of childcare for a four-year-old child was $10,068 per year for a full-time care in a center in 2014 and $7,191 in a family childcare home.

“It’s certainly an economic equity issue for women,” said Freedner-Maguire. “It’s often women who pull themselves out of the workforce to provide childcare who want to be in the workforce.”

It’s also an issue of finding slots for children. While there were 26,311 children under age six years in Vermont in 2014, there were 25,997 total slots open for childcare of all ages. Many times, mothers call centers looking for care and can’t get a slot.

“You hear story after story about these sort of situations,” said Freedner-Maguire.

Quality matters, too, she added. Only 12 percent of the 522 centers in Vermont are nationally accredited and only one percent of family childcare homes were nationally accredited.

“There’s a huge challenge of providing quality programming because it requires a huge cost,” said Freedner-Maguire. But, she added, young children’s development happens at an accelerated rate, making learning, play and human interaction extremely important.

“It is the greatest time that we can impact healthy outcomes,” said Freedner-Maguire. Something as simple as having an adult smile at a baby or young child is vital to healthy growth.

“The brain is developing, the connections with synapses are literally forming with that interactions,” she said.

On the whole, relying on the old system of women providing childcare doesn’t work socially, economically or practically today. Vermont joins many other states in needing to find new ways to ensure healthy child development.

“Across the board, it’s a real challenge to the state and it’s something we need to address,” said Freedner-Maguire.

Takes a village

Santiago’s 43-year-old mother, Janice Santiago, is also a single mother who raised Andrea and is now caring for Andrea’s nine-year-old brother, Stephen.

“It is extremely frustrating and exhausting and balancing work,” said Janice. “It’s an ongoing struggle for moms.”

On a Thursday in February, Janice and Stephen got ready for their day by juggling a number of tasks in their St. Albans apartment before rushing to school and work.

Around 7:30 a.m., Stephen – who has been diagnosed with autism – watched the movie “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” while his mother showered, made his lunch, put together a grocery list, did laundry and made sure he got his socks on for school.

In the midst of business, Janice found time to give her son both a real and chocolate, Hershey’s kiss.

Before getting into the car to head off for the day, Stephen helped brush snow off the car and – much to his mother’s displeasure – found he needed to clean Silly Putty off the car seat.

After a quick stop at Video King to drop off Stephen’s rented movie, the Santiagos arrived at St. Albans City School. Knowing that she’d be late for her job as a community engagement specialist at Women Helping Battered Women in Burlington, Janice agreed to walk in with Stephen to his classroom before going back home, attending again to laundry and then finally heading to work.

Janice said she is able to do it all thanks to having a flexible work schedule, help from others and working really hard. She pays $75 dollars a week for Stephen’s after school care – the highest bill she has following her rent.

“Financially, it’s insane,” she said.

While Janice’s situation isn’t exactly easy, it’s still possible because she has a lot of help from family and friends.  Her mother, for instance, largely helped raise Andrea.

“I have a village of people to help,” she said. “Thank God that I have that.”

Community model

According to Janice, a community model is what’s needed across Vermont to ensure proper childcare.

“In my dream-world, I would have a community empowerment center,” she said. There, Janice added, mothers could participate in educational activities and trainings, and volunteers – such as older community members – could help care for the children there.

Others have seen the value of a community approach to childcare as illustrated by several statewide initiatives.

Universal pre-kindergarten public education, for instance, will be offered in 2015 for all three and four year olds in Vermont thanks to Act 166, and Gov. Peter Shumlin also announced a new Promise Community initiative on Feb. 10.

As part of the Promise Community program – for which applications were due by interested communities on Wednesday – education, health care, private public and community services will be coordinated to serve young children in high need, rural areas during a two-year process.

In addition, Let’s Grow Kids is currently advocating for legislation to form a Blue Ribbon Commission for researching financial options for high-quality, affordable childcare in Vermont. The proposal is Section C 101 of Shumlin’s proposed 2016 state budget.

On the local level, mothers like Janice also recognize the value of working with others to provide care for kids. Andrea Santiago, for instance, thanks to income from her part-time work, a healthy tax return and the help of a friendly landlord, just moved to an apartment in St. Albans with Osasa.

“We got really lucky and found a place with heat and water paid,” said Santiago.

There, Santiago said, she is not only closer to work, but she can help Janice save some money by picking up and watching Stephen – at the same time as caring for Gibson – in a mutually beneficial set-up.

“That’s a little more money coming in for me and it helps my mom out,” said Santiago.

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