Marta Delgado has been up for hours cleaning, preparing meals and setting out books for the 6:30 a.m. arrival of her first families. As a day-care provider who watches a dozen children in her Long Beach home, Delgado's schedule is around the clock.
Parents — who are janitors and fast-food managers, receptionists and medical assistants, postal carriers and airport employees — sometimes don't pick up their children until nearly midnight.
Regardless of how much money the parents have, Delgado, 50, fights to find a way to take in the children. Without her, she said, parents couldn't go to work to provide for their families.
Delgado, like thousands of other child-care providers, receives some funding through subsidized vouchers for low-income families. The budget for child care has stayed flat for years while costs have risen, and early childhood education advocates say circumstances continue to be challenging.
"I hope there will be change soon," Delgado said on a recent day in her serene backyard. With the help of two assistants, she watched over children painting, splashing with water toys and playing house. Since she opened her home to child care in 2007, in part so she could raise her two boys, she's worked to make her home look like the most colorful of kindergartens.
This is the first year since the start of the recession that California has had a budgetary surplus. The boost will primarily benefit state child-care centers and providers, as opposed to private ones such as Delgado's.
This year, the state has allocated $76.6 billion for K-12 education, including $2.1 billion for the youngest Californians who are eligible for state-funded preschool and child care.
Among other initiatives, the budget covers preschool and day-care slots, improving the quality and access to early childhood education and a 5% increase in the reimbursement rate for about 2,000 state-contracted home care providers.
Effective Jan. 1, the budget will also include $19 million for voucher-based providers' reimbursement, 13% less than the 2009 rate.
Voucher increases apply to children who qualify based on age. For example, Delgado will see only a 0.5% increase (according to the California Budget Project, a nonprofit public policy research group) for each preschooler's child-care subsidy; school-aged children and infants won't receive an increase at all.
Early childhood education advocates laud the budget as an important investment in opportunities for children.
"We're not there yet, but this is a positive step. We're delighted that we aren't seeing cuts," said Kathy Malaske-Samu, director of Los Angeles County's Office of Child Care.
When the state failed to pass a budget in 2007, Delgado went four months without state reimbursement. Usually the one to send the children home with a little extra food so no one would go hungry, this time, Delgado said parents pitched in to give her a hand. They watch out for each other, an extended family of sorts.
"If it hadn't been for them, I would've been forced to close my doors," Delgado said.
State-subsidized child care and preschool programs were cut by about 40%, after adjusting for inflation, since the budget crisis began. About 110,000 children lost access to affordable, quality care and preschool as a result, according to the California Budget Project. An estimated 193,000 children were on a waiting list by 2011 for state-subsidized care.
Terry Carter, a spokeswoman for education workers union SEIU Local 99, said the union would have liked additional money for infants and toddlers this year. Quality care is especially important because crucial brain development occurs in a child's first few years, she said.
That's why providers such as Delgado are essential, said Coral Itzcalli from Raising California Together, a coalition of advocates for early childhood development services.
"We call them California's primary brain-builders," Itzcalli said. "They're setting the stage for the children to be successful academically and just be good people."
Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators have said the budget has a host of competing priorities but that they attempted to boost programs — such as early childhood care and education — that have gone years without increases. The state funding is distributed among a mix of entities, including county offices of education, school districts and home care providers.
Delgado wants to keep rates affordable for families who have subsidies and for those who pay out of pocket. She worries that raising her rates could price families out. She doesn't want to do that.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the mean income for a child-care worker in 2013 was $24,680.
"Marta should be getting paid what a CFO of a big corporation is paid. She's teaching our next generation, our next leaders," said Brenda Pinedo, a full-time receptionist, nursing student and single mother of four.
Pinedo, 26, has left her children with Delgado since her eldest, 9-year-old Richard Fernandezees, was a year old. Her youngest, 3-month-old Brooklynne, began staying with Delgado when she was just a few weeks old.
"Being a single parent is hard," Pinedo said. "She's been the other parent."
When Pinedo has struggled to put food on the table and pay for gas, Delgado has treated the kids as her own. What has she done for them?
"Mostly everything," Richard said, citing how she's taught him and his siblings numbers and the ABCs, how to share and even to develop a fondness for vegetables. Delgado checks their homework, and challenges them with additional worksheets that she creates.
"I'm really strict on that, making sure they are ready for kinder[garten].... No TV at all, zero," Delgado said. "There's too much to do."
For the children, Delgado's is a second home. For the parents, almost half of whom are single mothers, it's a blessing. Amid otherwise hectic circumstances, parents say Delgado provides a haven.