Clearing the way for day care innovation right at home

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Buffalo News (New York)
By: Emma D. Sapong
October 3, 2010

Community Child Care Clearinghouse offers helping hand to business-minded providers

When Karrie Smith gave birth to her son, an impending financial conundrum eclipsed the joys of motherhood.

If she returned to her part-time office job, day care costs would leave her only $100 from her paycheck. But if Smith became a stay-at-home mom, she would have no income.

"I didn't know what to do," she said. "I needed to figure out a way to stay home and still make some money."

She decided she would run a child care business out of her North Tonawanda home. Through the Community Child Care Clearinghouse of Niagara, Smith became registered, got the required health and safety training, and received financial assistance to pay for it all.

"They were great in helping me get grants and guiding me through whole application process," Smith said. "And they were always available to answer questions."

Smith, 31, has been a registered family provider for a year, and her day care business, Homegrown Peanuts, is at legal capacity with five youngsters -- a mix of infants and toddlers during the day and elementary school-age children after school.

"I'm home with my son, and I'm working," she said. "It's going great."

What began as a last-minute fix to her employment and child care dilemma has grown into her passion.

"I always wanted to figure out my niche, what I would love to do in life, and I knew it wasn't my old job because it wasn't meaningful," she said. "But being here with the kids is rewarding. I'm helping them by taking care of them, and I'm making a difference. I love having them here, and it's what I want to do."

Smith has practical plans to open a day care business. She returned to Niagara County Community College in January to finish a humanities degree, and aims to transfer to Niagara University next year for a three-year program to get a master's in early childhood education.

"I always considered owning my business instead of working for other people, and this is it," she said.

Smith credits the clearinghouse for setting her on a career path. "In the beginning, I called them all the time, and they were always there for me," she said.

The clearinghouse, located on Main Street in Niagara Falls, is the only agency in Niagara County that assists prospective and current child care providers in obtaining and maintaining licenses and registrations with training and information on financial assistance and the state Office of Children and Family Services' regulations. It serves all types of providers -- day care centers, family care, group family care and and school-age care.

Its ongoing workshops cover the nine training areas regulated by the state, including nutrition and health needs; safety and security procedures; identification and prevention of shaken-baby syndrome; and business records maintenance. Additionally, it runs the Child and Adult Food Program workshop, instructing providers in receiving reimbursements for feeding the children in their care.

Training is held at its headquarters, online and via videoconference for the convenience of providers.

The clearinghouse also offers guidance through the home-inspection portion and, if necessary, assists providers in ensuring that their homes are in compliance.

Angela Burns, director of the clearinghouse, said its services allow child care providers to serve families, and themselves, by becoming economically empowered.

"It's a rewarding experience to help a family that desperately needs the help," Burns said. "And you're able to help yourself by being self-employed. It's not just baby-sitting; it's an actual profession. They can claim tax write-offs, and there's a higher pay rate when you are registered or have a license."

To start, the clearinghouse's rates are the lowest in the state, and then the agency is vigilant about providing grants to cover the majority, if not all, of the costs of workshops.

"We just can't see raising the prices," Burns said, "People just can't afford it."

Grants also are available to income-eligible providers, and most qualify for the assistance, to purchase essential supplies and items to run their day care centers. "It's a big help," said Patricia Cox, 45, who has a 14-year-old group family day care in Niagara Falls. "They've given me carbon-monoxide detectors, safety outlets, double strollers, gloves, paint, cabinet hooks, portable cribs, paint, puzzles, gloves. It's a long list."

The clearinghouse, which has a database of 171 child care providers and services, also operates a referral service that links parents with a variety of child care and summer programs within a one- to two-mile radius. The toll-free hotline, (800) 701-4KID, yields more than 300 calls a year. And the referrals also generate business for providers.

"They have referred me to some families," said Patricia Emmons, 42, who has 12 children in a North Tonawanda business she has operated the last 14 years. "It's a great service for providers and good resource for families looking for care."

The clearinghouse, funded by the state Office of Children and Family Services, is the child care resource arm of the Niagara Community Action Program, and it operates out of its building at 1521 Main St. in Niagara Falls. It's among Niagara CAP's comprehensive list of programs -- from job training to financial literacy -- aimed at combating poverty. Niagara CAP serves 70,000 county residents each year and has neighborhood centers in the Falls, Lockport and North Tonawanda.

"We provide services and programs to low-income and working families, helping them on the road to self-sufficiency," said Suzanne Shears, executive director of Niagara CAP. "We do so much in our community."

The clearinghouse began in 1995 to improve the county's child care services, ensuring that children are receiving high-quality care from trained providers, and to create employment opportunities. Registered and licensed providers are required to undergo fingerprinting and background searches, and their homes are inspected.

"It's is an intense process," Burns said. "Regulations came about for a reason -- a child might have gotten hurt or killed in an unsafe environment. You don't know if the lady down the street who watches everybody's children has a safe house or if she's a sex offender. Going through the registration process clears them."

The county currently needs more in-home child care providers because it doesn't have 24-hour day care centers, and few centers have extended hours. In addition, nontraditional hours of care are needed because a lot of parents work later shifts at the casino, health care facilities or retail stores, Shears said.

The clearinghouse will offer its "Introduction to Family Child Care Training" from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 26. Call 285-8572 or visit childcareofniagara.com to register. The free course covers the application process, the 30 hours of training required in the first two years, the ongoing classes, the two types of family care -- family and group family -- and the varying number of children and ages allowed under the law.

While Smith moves toward a master's degree, she and her sister, who also has a family day care business, will combine their businesses to create a group family format, which allows more children but with more adult assistance.

"For now, it'll be a family business run out of my house," Smith said, "but the next step is family day care center with a universal preschool."

e-mail: esapong@buffnews.com

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