It was 15 years ago, long before child care became a trendy issue, when La Habra City Manager Lee Risner asked the state for $23,000 to begin an after-school program for 23 kindergarten students.
The conservative bedroom community tucked in the northwest corner of Orange County seemed an unlikely pioneer in the area of child care, but Risner said the city was ahead of its time in realizing what is now a common theme among child-care proponents.
"It became very obvious to me early on," Risner said, "that if we were interested in people being in the employment world rather than in the welfare world, we had better be interested in child care."
New Center Opens Next Week
Risner's request for $23,000 was approved by the state Department of Education, making La Habra the first city in California to become a child-care provider, according to state records.
Since 1974, the city's programs have expanded steadily and now receive about $700,000 annually to care for nearly 300 children of low- and moderate-income families. And next week, La Habra is opening a new child-care center--paid for with $265,000 in city funds--which will offer before- and after-school programs for 90 children.
"That doesn't surprise me at all," said Kay Witcher, regional administrator for the state Department of Education's child development section. "They have been very, very active and very vigorous in this area."
Other Orange County cities, such as Irvine and Anaheim, are also getting into the child-care business. Last year, Irvine built a $1.2-million child development center in its City Hall complex to serve about 100 children of residents and city employees. Anaheim is using a $20,000 grant from the Department of Education to develop child-care programs in cooperation with the private sector.
This year, Witcher said, 11 California cities were awarded state grants for child care. "We're seeing more and more cities express an interest," she said.
La Habra started out as a reluctant provider of child care, Risner said. "We were the court of last resort. The money was available, but there was just no one else around to handle it," he said.
The first kindergartners in the program were cared for after school in local churches, recalled Faye Campbell, who has been the city's child-care coordinator since 1974. Just six months after that program started, Campbell was asking the state for more money to start a full-time day-care center.
And when space ran out there, La Habra successfully got money to contract with local home day-care operators. About 30 infants and toddlers are now receiving care under this program, Campbell said.
A crisis occurred last year, however, when Campbell and Risner learned that the city was about to lose its Head Start program, which educates 85 low-income youngsters a year before they enter kindergarten. The school where the Head Start classes were being held was scheduled to close.
Rather than lose the program, Risner arranged to rent space from the La Habra Boys Club and had the city apply for federal money. The city now has a $250,000 Head Start grant, and Risner is already looking for ways to expand the program.
"We could double the number of students without half trying," he said.
Risner speculated that one reason La Habra's efforts have enjoyed community support is that parental responsibility is a requirement of the program.
The city holds monthly parenting workshops on such topics as child-rearing and earthquake preparedness. To be eligible for subsidized child care, a parent must either be working, training for a job or attending school. The child-care centers also serve as social service referral centers, dispensing information about other agencies that provide help in the areas of health, nutrition and employment.
Parents pay for child care according to a sliding income scale, and can earn no more than 84% of the state's median income to qualify. For instance, a single mother with one child who makes about $16,000 a year would pay about $20 a week per child.
For Cheryl Patterson, a 27-year-old single mother of two studying to become a teacher, La Habra's child-care program has been "a godsend."
"If I hadn't been able to find La Habra, I doubt I would have been able to follow my education," Patterson said. "Families just need a little bit of help to make ends meet. Not much--just a little."
Campbell said most of the children in the city's child-care centers are from single-parent homes. The waiting list to get into the centers is six months to one year, Campbell said.
Calls From Mothers-to-Be'
"I even have mothers call me when they're pregnant so they can get on the list," she said.
Even while the furniture is being moved into La Habra's new child-care center, Risner and Campbell are plotting more ways to expand the city's services. Campbell would like to extend the operating hours--currently 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.--an hour or two later in the evenings to accommodate commuting parents.
Risner is considering what South Coast Air Quality Management District pollution control proposals, such as a four-day workweek, may mean for child care.
"People are going to be working strange hours," he said. "It would not surprise me if in two or three years we have child care going until 11 or 12 at night."