LIMA — While it’s not anticipated and poured over monthly, like a jobs report or consumer confidence rating, any working family can tell you the state of childcare is a fine business indicator to take a pulse on the economy.
While that pulse has been faint for several years, it is beating loudly now, signaling people returning to full-time work.
At Trinity Center for Creative Child Care downtown, the staff made it through some lean times with reduced hours and lower enrollments. Through the recession, the center did not lay off employees, but it did not replace employees who left. Today, Director Christina Vorhes is on the verge of hiring again.
“March is when we started seeing an increase in our numbers, and by July the revenue was increasing,” Vorhes said. “We have 16 more enrolled now than in February. There is a difference. The one thing we’ve noticed is that we’re not having to chase families for money. They’re doing better.”
When the economy bottomed out, families used a government subsidy to help pay for care while parents went back to school. The center is seeing much less of that now. A year ago, families called asking about part-time care and half-day preschool. The center began offering it, but now families aren’t asking about it; they want full-time care.
“That tells us that things are better,” Vorhes said. “Last year people couldn’t afford it.”
Trinity now has a waiting list for infant and toddler care. Some of those families could check out Learning Castle Child Care Center, whose owner, Marinta Nichols, dared to open a second location in this still-soft economy.
Nichols stuck out the recession with her daycare on Harding Highway. Earlier this year, with a full eastside center, she and her husband noticed the North Cole Street building that previously held a daycare and asked about it.
“It was a huge leap of faith,” Nichols said. “It was just an opportunity to serve more families.”
Learning Castle will have an open house from 3 to 5 p.m. today at 1251 N. Cole St.
Learning Castle continues to serve many families with a parent in school or new training, especially nontraditional students and even those taking classes online.
While Learning Castle opened its new location with 21 children just a couple of years ago, times were lean on Harding Highway.
“The economy did affect us. A lot of programs were. Sometimes, you think you’re the only one,” Nichols said. “We pulled the staff together. We didn’t want to lay anyone off, and we made it work. We worked through it, and we’re still standing.”
While there remains a choice of care for working families around Lima, the community is experiencing a shortage for second- and third-shift work, said Julie Huelskamp, regional coordinator for YWCA Child Care Resource and Referral.
“(Availability of care) is a good indicator. A couple of summers ago, people were losing jobs, and that was hurting childcare agencies in the county,” Huelskamp said. “The improving economy has made a difference. It seems like the centers are getting busier.”
Government policy also affects families’ ability to use daycare. Ohio Job and Family Services provides a generous subsidy to help families pay for care because it helps families keep working. The daycare subsidy has a greater household income eligibility than some other government assistance. Families can also use it to provide care while a parent is in school. When the subsidy is reduced in some way, Huelskamp said, fewer families can take advantage of it, with the end result sometimes being a family member no longer working.
Nichols was serving families using funding through the Early Learning Initiative, but facing a tough budget, Gov. Ted Strickland killed the program, which hurt Learning Castle’s bottom line. The program had provided funding for care for children with disabilities.
The YWCA also helps people interested in opening up a center or becoming licensed. Those calls and interest are also picking up, Huelskamp said. The agency is a matchmaker. When families need care, the agency provides a list of centers from which families can choose. It also provides technical help, such as orientation, fingerprints, medical check and references for someone interested in becoming a provider.
“When you’re moving from babysitter to childcare provider, you have business things to think about, you’re moving from a babysitter mindset to a professional,” Huelskamp said.
Nichols opened up her first childcare center in her home 13 years ago. After working at what is now the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center, she went back to school for a degree in social work, then took a job with child support enforcement. She wanted to teach and care for children, so she and her husband remodeled their basement into a care center, with classroom and play space and began with six children. She continued to grow, first into her church, then to her Eastgate location, which now has 70 children enrolled.