For the Common Good : Mt. Washington Baby-Sitting Co-op Strives to Create Day-Care Center

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the last 1 1/2 years, at least 20 babies have been born to families in the hilly, semi-isolated area northeast of downtown known as Mount Washington. The neonatal wave has added impetus to a grass-roots push to bring a much-needed day-care center to the neighborhood.

Child-care shortages are a problem in all Los Angeles County communities. But a group of Mount Washington parents decided to stop complaining and do something. Thirty-five families, who came together as a baby-sitting co-op, are now trying to create a child-care center of their own, a dream that, if realized, will help solve a problem that plagues all working parents: how to find the best care they can possibly afford for their children.

Over the years, many parent groups have banded together, opening part-time cooperative nursery schools that have turned into child-care centers. But no other group is currently starting from scratch the way parents on Mount Washington are. If successful, their experience may become a blueprint for others trying to solve their own child-care dilemmas.

It is not that the area is devoid of child care. Five day-care centers serve children in the Mount Washington area. Three of them, however, are Head Start programs (for low-income families), one is a church-based center and the other is a YMCA.

Parents who don't qualify for Head Start or who prefer to have their children in smaller, secular care have very limited options. There are only five licensed family day-care providers in Mount Washington, serving a maximum of just 36 children. The neighborhood's working parents commute an average of 20 minutes each trip to their child-care sites.

"Our baby-sitting co-op has built a strong community of families with preschoolers, usually a group that is very isolated," said Pat Griffith. "This has given a strong sense of community to families with young children and given us the confidence to try to put this together."

Griffith, who commuted an extra 40 minutes a day until she found care in her neighborhood, will be facing problems this fall when her daughter, Geneva, will be too old for the family day-care home she now attends.

"I could take her to her school's after-school playground," said Griffith. "But my daughter is only 6 years old. She is not really in a position to fend for herself with 60 other kids. I just don't know what to do exactly. In this area, the choices are virtually not there."

The child-care project was conceived as a cooperative arrangement, where parents would be required to help out each week. But the parents now think that might place too great a demand on the families where both parents work full time or on single-parent families.

"I think we will be a child-care center with a high level of parent participation rather than a co-op," said Griffith. "We ideally want to open a full-day day-care center for which you have to have a director and staff. It would be standard preschool ages and after-kindergarten care. Our intention is to have full day care and a preschool for families who are interested in enrichment.

"We hope to have the ability to offer parents some of the same features they could get through co-ops, such as reduced fees if they come in one morning a week."

Their struggle is going to be as steep as some of the streets in the semi-rural, middle-class enclave that features breathtaking city views and homes that range in price from about $200,000 to $400,000.

So far, they have raised a bit of money, elected a board of directors (Griffith is president), scouted sites, written a statement of philosophy and come up with a name: Mt. Washington Preschool and Day Care Center. They have also enlisted their local councilman, Richard Alatorre, in the effort.

A nine-member volunteer board meets twice a month. There is one committee for every member, covering such topics as budget, site selection, program development, fund-raising and public relations.

Between meetings, said board member Debra Vodhanel, she spends between five and 10 hours a week on the project.

"It infuriates me when I think of how this society does not have good family support mechanisms," said Vodhanel, the mother of a 5 1/2-year-old and a 2-year-old. "I would like to see something permanent set up so people don't have to go through the stress that I went through (in finding child care)."

Obstacles to Success

Money, naturally, is one of the largest obstacles. The parents have raised about $6,000, but their finance committee estimates it will cost as much as $500,000 to acquire a site and build a center. If they can get permission to remodel part of the local city-owned recreation center--a long shot--the estimated tab would be $150,000 to $200,000. They will apply for whatever government grants and low-interest loans are available. USC's School of Architecture has agreed to take on the design as a student project.

"We may be naive in this, but we expect that we have to raise between $25,000 and $50,000 and borrow the rest of the money for construction," said Griffith. "How are we going to raise the money? That is a good question. How will we secure the loans? That is another good question. We will seek as much government assistances as we can."

Griffith estimates that the annual operating budget for the center, which will provide care for 50 children, will be about $250,000. "As always, the funding is going to be their major problem," said Pam Dodd, executive director of the Los Angeles Child Care and Development Council, which specializes in child-care services for low-income families. The Mount Washington parents contacted Dodd for advice some months ago.

"They will have a hard time breaking into the system with the (grant proposal) process. Unless new money becomes available, it will be difficult for them to get in. With the federal block grant money coming down (new money legislated by Congress for child care), it will be prime for them to try to go for it."

Dodd said the Mt. Washington Preschool and Day Care Center has another problem: no track record. When the state awards money, it frequently looks for experience. But she is optimistic because the parents are organized, educated and sensitive to the entire community. Next to funding, finding a site will be the biggest challenge.

Land is scarce in the area, and the residential zoning means that if the group wants to convert a residential site, it will need a conditional-use permit from the city. If enough neighbors complain, the permit could be denied.

"They haven't come to us (the city) yet," said Patsy Lane, the city's child-care coordinator. "But typically, we will try to look at all the facts and see how they mesh with city's child-care policy. We have to weigh other considerations because the children in these families are not the only constituents."

Some neighbors have grumbled that Mount Washington is not the place for a day-care center.

"There will be some resistance because the streets are narrow and neighbors don't want the additional traffic," said Griffith.

Said Lane, who also serves as a liaison between community groups and the city on child-care issues: "They have challenges in their area, lots of geographic challenges--shortages of outdoor space due to hillsides. We looked through an inventory of surplus city property for them, but there was nothing, too much hillside."

Possible Sites

So far, two possible sites have come under discussion.

One is the Carlin G. Smith Recreation Center at Avenue 46 and Frontenac, about halfway up the mountain, but many neighbors oppose it.

"The center is a wonderful concept," said Lynn Sosa, mother of two small children, "but I disagree that the Carlin G. Smith rec center would be a desirable spot because it is on the hill and it would pose a traffic problem. It is a steep hill. A lot of people don't want to drive up here. I think another objection I have would be that it alienates a lot of people because it is up on the hill and it makes it a more exclusive school. Locating it at the bottom of the hill increases the chance of a more diverse population."

The other site is a piece of unused city property on Avenue 63 and York Boulevard in Highland Park, the community at the base of Mount Washington. The Arroyo Arts Collective is proposing an "art village"--low-cost housing and studio space for artists. The city is urging the group to incorporate a child-care component, but no decision has been made about what kind.

Some Highland Park residents resent the incursion by Mount Washington parents into their neighborhood.

"It's like we don't exist until they need us," said Diane Garcia, a library aide at Buchanan Street Elementary School.

"My feeling is that Mount Washington is putting together a package for a proposal for child care only to serve the children of Mount Washington, not the immediate surrounding community," said Garcia.

Parents in her community cannot afford to give their children bus fare to the library, she said, let alone nursery schools and child care.

"There are socioeconomic divisions," said Garcia. "They are much more powerful politically than we are, and they have more money."

Griffith said she and her group are well aware that the entire community must be served.

Today, the Mount Washington parents will meet with the arts collective, Highland Park parents and representatives of the Community Redevelopment Agency to see if a joint proposal is feasible.

Pushing Ahead

After Mount Washington parents settle on a site, said Griffith, they hope to start construction in a year and open the center as early as September, 1992.

"I think it will, in one sense, be easier for them because child care is in everyone's consciences now," said Mary Kelly, director of the 40-year-old Hilltop Nursery School, which is one of the oldest cooperative nursery schools in Southern California. "And there are government departments that are willing to at least talk to you and listen. It has more respect as an issue."

Hilltop, which offers its 44 children full-time day care, is on the grounds of the Bellevue Recreational Center in Silver Lake/Echo Park. Hilltop paid for its building, which is on city-owned land, and the city leases it back to them at no cost. The school pays for utilities, maintenance and insurance. Besides parent fees, Hilltop is supported by a block grant from the city that amounts to $76,000 this year, or a third of its operating costs.

The Mount Washington group hopes to use Hilltop's experience--as well as a video it has made about its program--as it pushes forward with its plan.

Although they would like to offer it, Griffith said there are no plans for infant care at the Mount Washington child-care center. "We think infant care is too ambitious for us," said Griffith.

Infancy is the age group for which care is scarcest and, because of required staffing ratios, the most expensive. The state-funded resource and referral agency that serves Mount Washington reported that of the 150 phone calls it received from parents asking for child-care referrals last year, 80 were seeking infant care.

Lane said she knows of no other parent group in the city that is organizing in this manner. "Most other groups that I've seen have been organized by the proprietors of day-care centers who get the parents together (to lobby for permits).

"This group is very active and very articulate," she added. "They understand the issues and how the system works, and they are committed to working with their neighbors."

The Series at a Glance For reprints of this series or more information, call (213) 237-6569.

SUNDAY: Los Angeles is rated as a top city for child care, but is it really? There are critical shortages for children of certain ages. Quality is next to impossible to monitor. And, as working parents quickly discover, child care eats up a huge portion of the family budget.

MONDAY: What has America done for its children lately? Last year, Congress passed major legislation appropriating millions for child care--but some say it's only a drop in the bucket.

TUESDAY: Many companies express an interest in helping employees with child care, but very few offer the ultimate: on-site centers. The city of Los Angeles and TRW are two employers who believe children and the workplace are not incompatible.

WEDNESDAY: Every day, thousands of Los Angeles children are dropped off at private homes for family day care. Only a small percentage of homes are licensed, and no one really knows what kind of care is delivered behind closed doors.

TODAY: Finding child care is a desperate search for many families. But some parents in Mount Washington have joined forces to create their own child-care center. It won't be easy.

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