Every morning in downtown Allentown, two long-time staff members stand at the driveway door to The Children’s Center on Union Street, waiting for children and their grownups to arrive.
Temperatures are taken, symptoms observed, health and travel discussed with families, and then the children enter into our care. Families must miss the long walk up the stairs and seeing their child’s classrooms but know this is best for now.
At The Children’s Center, we’ve learned and followed all of the new ways to keep our children, families and teachers as safe as possible. Now we are asking people in our community to stop and think about the early care and education system as part of a bigger economic picture.
The Children’s Center, usually just known as “VOA”, for our parent agency Volunteers of America of Pennsylvania, has been caring for children and families in Allentown for generations. One of the things that makes us proud is having people who grew up with us return with their own children.
When I first came to The Children’s Center in 1978, the families of the children we cared for were working in garment factories or textile mills, with a lucky few employed at the Mack Truck factory or Bethlehem Steel. I’d drive home on Tenth Street in Allentown, passing a small sewing business that had industrial machines visible through the windows, and small children playing outside on the sidewalk while their mothers assembled pieces of clothing inside. Some of our families at The Center would come to pick up their children at the end of the day, and we’d see bundles of fabric in the back seats of their cars; piece-rate work meant that sometimes they would sew at night at home.
Now our families are working in the many health-related fields available in the Valley, in warehouses or front-line service jobs. Some are community college students working for degrees that will provide a better life for their children. As their needs have changed, what we do has changed. As of September, more than two dozen children arrive at The Children’s Center every morning with their computers or tablets, headphones, whiteboards and workbooks tucked into their backpacks to have virtual school in our Center. It has been a huge but important challenge to meet.
As the United States and the Lehigh Valley both move closer to a consequential election, this may be a rare opportunity to put children’s and families' needs in the front and center of community discussion.
Do we want to return to exactly the way everything was before, or have we been given an opportunity to reflect, reconsider, and rebuild in ways that support children and families, and help to heal the damage of poverty and social injustice? And how will our providers of early education and care survive so that we can be there when families continue to return to their work?
We know that in Pennsylvania, almost 70% of families include two working parents. With a lack of high-quality, affordable childcare, they have to choose between earning income and their children’s wellbeing.
Almost half of the child care and early learning programs in Pennsylvania have indicated they are at risk of permanently closing in the next few months. Dozens of programs in our own community are endangered, including many that have survived previous financial challenges. In the best of times, child care centers large and small operate on very thin financial margins, even if they are technically “for profit” programs. Reductions in enrollment and other changes needed to keep all of us safe have increased costs, cut hours and threatened survival.
Since the onset of the pandemic in March, there has been more attention given to the child care and early learning system than at any time I can remember. There has been temporary financial support through the CARES Act, and presidential candidates' plans that acknowledge the importance of the first five years of children’s lives and the benefits of early learning for children and communities. But additional public investment is needed. In Pennsylvania, Start Strong PA is advocating that child care providers get the financial support they need to provide high-quality care and make sure access for children increases rather than decreases. Now more than ever, they need the support and voices of community members to help lift them.
Child care programs are a foundation — the infrastructure, if you will — that will help support an economic recovery when it’s possible for the community to move forward. Investing in early learning will help children be more successful in school, and become productive members of a stronger community. Academic studies tell us the financial benefits of this investment; our hearts know the benefits of curiosity, healthy meals, outdoor play, and strong relationships among children, families and teachers.
Without a supported child care system in place, economic recovery will be impossible.
Children can’t vote, so it’s our job as their grown-ups to help them grow and learn and to keep them safe. We all need to be their voice at this important time of challenge and change. Let your vote speak for all children, and help build a stronger community for all of us.
Betty Druckenmiller is the director of The Children’s Center, Volunteers of America, located in Allentown. The Children’s Center is a partner agency of United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley, and provides the highest quality early learning and care to a diverse center city community of families facing economic and other challenges.