Headlines about young children being left alone while their parents clocked in for their fast-food shift or went for a job interview outraged the public this year. But these stories of “child neglect” can obscure the underlying reality that confounds low-income families trying to get ahead every single day: the lack of accessible, affordable child care.
Rosemary Tran Lauer knows the story by heart and works to ease the hardship parents face by providing grants for affordable, high-quality child care and educational services for preschool children. She started the Devotion to Children organization in her basement in 1994 because she understands personally the challenges of living in poverty while caring for young children.
Tran Lauer fled from Vietnam to Guam in 1975 with her 3-year-old son and 6-month-old daughter. After seeing her interviewed by reporters, an international rescue committee decided to sponsor her immigration to the United States. In Washington, D.C., she lived in a rundown efficiency apartment, working three jobs to make ends meet. She left her children with neighbors, who were virtual strangers, because she had no other option.
“It was brutal. But if someone is saying they’re willing to take care of your kids, you do whatever you can,” says Tran Lauer. “[At times] I almost wanted to kill myself but I didn’t want to leave my children orphaned.”
Even working 16-hour days, Tran Lauer was barely surviving. But she learned English and eventually moved to Virginia, attending school to become a hairdresser. Later, she opened a successful salon before getting into real estate in 2001. Her family grew to include a new husband and seven children.
Thirty-five years after Tran Lauer’s struggles, the problem of child care accessibility persists. In Fairfax County, Va., the average cost for in-home group child care for infants in 2013 was around $11,000 annually, according to county statistics. For child care centers, the cost for infants was about $16,000, more than the entire yearly earnings of a full-time minimum wage earner in Virginia. Even $15-an-hour wage earners would have to spend at least one-third of their income to provide child care for one infant. As of February 2011, Virginia had 11,018 children on a waiting list for child care assistance, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
“It’s painful to see people going though that now,” Tran Lauer says.
Now in its 20th year, DTC brings in about $200,000 annually, largely through three events: a Mother’s Day run that’s in its fifth year and draws more than 1,100 participants, a poker night, and their signature “Red, Heart & Soul” dinner gala.
The nonprofit has five main partnerships with child care organizations, which help distribute grants to day care sites, preschools, literacy programs, off-hour child care facilities, and summer programs. Since 2006, Tran Lauer estimates, DTC’s grants have helped more than 3,000 children.
In 2007, DTC started partnering with Cornerstones, an organization that advocates for those in need of affordable housing, child care, and other services, and provides funding for evening child care services to low-income and homeless families.
“Without this child care opportunity, parents would not be able to work or attend training to support their families,” says Jody Tompros, Cornerstones’ division director of family stability and child health and development.
Tompros recounts the story of a woman she calls “Tessa,” who was trafficked from Central America when she was 14. Tessa now lives in one of Cornerstones’ 52 affordable housing units with her six daughters. She had been working at a dry cleaner and was accessing a county child care subsidy, but then she lost her job and the day care funding. DTC’s helped cover two weeks of child care so that Tessa could take an employment readiness course.
“Since she took that course, she really sees the value of education,” says Tompros. Tessa now works as a house cleaner while her children are in school and is pursuing her GED.
Some DTC grant recipients are middle-income earners in crisis.
Lena Hamideh works for a law firm as a franchise resource specialist but found herself struggling to make ends meet when she and her husband split up. She couldn’t afford to pay rent, bills, and child care costs on her own. She fell behind and the day care provider threatened to force her 4-year-old daughter out. The county’s child care assistance program had a three-year waiting list, she learned. “As a single mom, here I was making a great salary, but because of an unfortunate circumstance I was having to choose between work and day care,” Hamideh says.
DTC gave her an emergency grant covering two months of child care, which gave Hamideh the help she needed to finish the lease and move in with her parents.
“The expense [of child care] is so high that it leaves little room for anything else,” says Hamideh. “Rosemary really did save my life. Had it not been for Devotion to Children, I would be on welfare right now.”
Tran Lauer recently published a book called Beggars or Angels that chronicles her life story. She plans to use the proceeds to hire an executive director for Devotion who will advocate for affordable child care in the political arena.
“We need universal child care just as we have public school, so mothers don’t have to leave their kids in the car or at the playground while they work,” Tran Lauer says. “Let’s build preschools now so we don’t have to build prisons later. That is my hope and prayer.”