Golden opportunities

My daughter, Simone, learned to ride a bike two weekends ago. It was such a preview of her teenage years, I think. There was much drama, too many tears at first, and then a moment where she stopped crying, set her jaw and said, “I just want to get this over with.” Thirty minutes later she was riding unassisted up and down the block.

I thought about that story as I started this piece, which focuses on early childhood education and care for low-income kids. Simone’s only obstacle was herself -- that, and the challenges of figuring out how to manage the long appendages of a 4’3” body when you’re only seven years old. She had the bike. She had the support. And she had the opportunity to learn how to ride it.

Opportunity and resources make all the difference. Catholic Charities has about 1,100 infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers in our early education and childcare programs. Ninety-eight percent of those children come from families whose incomes qualify them for subsidized childcare. The other two percent come from families who pay the full cost of childcare tuition. When they are in our care, the children get a combination of attention, nutrition and curriculum designed to help ensure they are ready to thrive when they start primary school.

The extent and the importance of affordable, nonprofit childcare often is lost in the shuffle. Childcare is a $30 billion business annually in the U.S. Nonprofits provide about 46 percent of that care, with 25,000 nonprofits around the country providing a combination of center-based and home-based care, just as Catholic Charities in this archdiocese does. Organizations fund themselves in this work through a combination of private fundraising, government contracts and the fees that families can and do pay.

In Massachusetts, childcare subsidies are handled by the Department of Early Education and Care. Each year, approximately 60,000 low-income children in Massachusetts receive help from EEC. Unfortunately, the wait list for subsidized childcare here currently sits at 18,000 families. On top of that, due to tightening state budgets, access to vouchers for subsidized childcare has become restricted. The state froze them for a while last year -- meaning people couldn’t get new ones, and if a family lost their voucher, it just went away, rather than being passed to another family or child. Even now, it is extremely difficult for the average family in need to get a new voucher.

What the need, combined with the shortage of resources, translates into are children and families behind the eight-ball before the kids ever get behind a desk. Vocabulary, nutrition, socialization all are important aspects of early childhood development, and key inputs to a child’s ability to participate effectively in school later on. The relationship between success in school and factors like future income and health is undeniable. What happens for kids today drives what they’ll be tomorrow and too many of them still aren’t getting the start they deserve.

The good news is that those 60,000 kids do get support each year. The network of nonprofit childcare providers in Massachusetts is a strong one, and Catholic Charities is a strong part of it. The new Commissioner of the EEC cares about kids, and no one wants to see the next generation fail.

Our family can embrace the drama of Simone’s first bike ride because we’ve had so little drama to worry about elsewhere in getting her ready for life. My four year-old son, Jude, seeing Simone’s success, is now tearing around the driveway on training wheels, ready for his turn. Of course he’ll have his turn. Of course he’ll have the opportunity.

Every kid should.

Tiziana C. Dearing is president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston.

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