“We’ve been juggling,” said Marathon resident Liz Samess. She’s mother to two girls, ages 4 and 6. Like many families with young children, it’s been almost a daily struggle to arrange for child care since Hurricane Irma — whether that’s all day, or just an after-school program to bridge the gap until mom and dad are done with work.
“We’ve found friends and family that can help but, honestly, it’s just frustrating,” said Samess.
Out of the 32 childcare centers and home providers in the Keys monitored by the Early Learning Coalition, 24 were damaged by Hurricane Irma, according to the coalition, which keeps track of the situation because it administers a school readiness program.
According to the coalition, Montessori Island in Tavernier has permanently closed. The other childcare centers and home providers in the Keys spent weeks juggling new spaces and provisional inspections and licenses from the state Department of Children and Families to operate in loaned facilities. For example, the Banana Cabanna of Cudjoe Key found a temporary home at Suglarloaf Elementary School in two borrowed classrooms. After about two months, the repairs were made to the childcare facility and the kids are home again. Kreative Kids in Marathon had a similar situation. It found space at the Adult Education Center, but it is set to be demolished for the construction of a new county library. It will be another two weeks before Kreative Kids has finished the repairs and inspections and the kids can come through the doors again.
“County officials were very gracious and gave us extension after extension,” said Keith LaFountain of New Assembly of God, the parent organization of Kreative Kids. “We’ve hired a crew to work all day and all night. We need to get four rooms and the hallway and bathroom complete.”
Kreative Kids is housed in the New Life Assembly of God church in Marathon. The repairs to the sanctuary, and even the completion of the church’s playground, started before the storm, will have to wait. LaFountain said although there have been teams of volunteers and donations, the church is still struggling to put back what Irma wrecked. That childcare facility is not alone.
The coalition partnered with the Save the Children Foundation and provided grants totaling $194,000 to support 19 facilities in restoration and rebuilding efforts. The grants paid for roofing, windows, playground repair and to buy new refrigerators and air conditioners. One of the most esoteric needs? Shade. The ELC also helped to purchase canopies for many of the centers that lost trees resulting in playgrounds that were too hot for kids to play comfortably.
ELC and Save the Children also fed the families and childcare staff after Hurricane Irma, a total of $75,000 in Publix gift cards were handed out around the holidays with a F$10,000 boost from Publix Super Market Charities. Despite those efforts, many children today still do not have childcare, or their families have packed up and left the islands for at least partly that reason.
“Before the storm, we served about 32 kids with fulltime care and 68 kids with our after-school program,” said Maria Vaillant, director of Kreative Kids. “Before we closed our doors on Feb. 2, we had 20 fulltime and 36 after-school children.”
ELC doesn’t have exact numbers on how many children are “missing” from childcare other than to say that at the height of the program it served 747 children and that number is now 459 at the last count in December.
“But that loss is due to a variety of reasons such as children aging out, parents having an increase of income and no longer qualifying or families transferring out of county or state,” said Laurie Dunn, a family support and early learning specialist for ELC.
Valliant said Kreative Kids is missing children, too.
“Some families left because their kids were getting sick living in damaged homes. One family moved to Sebastian, another to Ohio, another to Michigan. Some of them lost their homes so they couldn’t come back.”
WHAT IS THE ELC?
The Early Learning Coalition of Miami-Dade/Monroe is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring early care and education for children in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. Through a variety of affordable and innovative early education and voluntary pre-kindergarten programs, the coalition serves more than 50,000 children up to age 12, and their families.
Founded in 2000, the coalition is among 30 similar organizations in Florida established following the enactment of the School Readiness Act, which consolidated Florida’s early learning services into one program.