Season of Sharing helps dozens of families after halt in Sarasota County childcare aid

Categories: Stories of Impact, Season of Sharing,

Victoria Lopez and Lee LaVallee were just starting to feel caught up.

The parents – military veterans raising three kids in a working-class neighborhood of North Port – had good, well-paying jobs. Victoria was employed as a teacher in Sarasota County and Lee was a county employee.

Inflation had pinched hard the past year, but between Lee’s pay bonuses and the family watching their budget, the couple was making it work.

They were planning to start saving for a house.

That was until Victoria learned the week before Thanksgiving that their county childcare assistance was to be put on hold after December – potentially increasing household costs by several hundred dollars a week.

The move stemmed from a decision in November by the Sarasota County Commission to pause its funding to the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County, or ELC, a decision that affected 200 families

The county commission plans to revisit the issue in January.

Thankfully, the ELC – left scrambling to fill the gap – was able to tap state programs and Season of Sharing to cover families until February.

But amid a crisis in early childhood learning – with sky-high tuition and dire staffing shortages at centers – parents worry about what will happen next.

“When I heard the news, it was awful,” Lopez said. “It’s very frustrating because once we think we’re getting ahead, now it’s something like this. Now we’re strapped again.”

Lopez is among 60 families being helped for the moment by Season of Sharing after the Community Foundation of Sarasota stepped in, said Brigid Kolowith, the ELC’s director of programs and integration.

The remaining 140 families qualified temporarily for state programs.

“Our hope is that this is a very temporary situation,” Kolowith said.

The timing of the decision is particularly devastating, she added.

Not only did families learn the news before the holidays. It also came in the wake of a housing crisis and the destruction wrought by Hurricane Ian – with some families still living in hotels, Kolowith said.

Working families are already struggling with a shortage of high-quality, affordable childcare for their kids.

Without the county’s assistance, she said, some families are facing spikes in their childcare costs of $800 to $900 a month.

“Who knows what would happen if they had to dis-enroll from that child care center,” Kolowith said. “The capacity is so tight right now.”

Many of the coalition’s providers have waiting lists as long as 300 names, she added, while some have closed their lists altogether.

The county’s decision impacts more than stressed-out parents juggling work and child care, she said. It threatens the children's early learning during some of the most formative years of their lives.

“We really hope that the county comes through with their decision in January with this funding and that children can continue with their education,” Kolowith said.

For Lopez and LaVallee, without the county’s assistance their childcare expense for their youngest, Michael, almost 2, would balloon from $79 a week to more than $230 – or almost an additional $600 a month.

On top of soaring costs of living this year, the increase will be a significant burden.

“We are a hard-working family, a blue-collar family,” said Lopez. Both are Army veterans – with LaVallee having served five tours of duty, including in 2005 in the war in Iraq.

And yet, she said, despite their work, they can’t seem to get ahead. They are not alone, she knows.

All the other families she sees at the daycare are just like them.

“You can tell they are trying their best,” she said. “I don’t think now is the time we should drop the ball on these people.”

The Season of Sharing assistance for January was a relief for many families, coming right after the holidays. She hopes it won't be necessary after January.

The assistance, she feels, is not a hand-out, but a form of community support that helps forestall a ripple effect that could affect other households and the economy due to the County Commission's decision.

For instance, if she and LaVallee can’t afford or find replacement child care, she will have to stay home from teaching – exacerbating teacher shortages and impacting an entire classroom of kids.

“Now it’s not just about my kid but other people, too,” Lopez said.

Lopez loves the county and the country. But at moments like this, the American Dream – their goal of saving for a house – feels more elusive than ever.

“We’re all told growing up, do everything you can,” Lopez said. "We are making efforts on our side, but we are still not feeling that it’s enough. You literally can only do so much.”

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See the story as it originally appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Jan. 4, 2023 here.

Story by Saundra Amrhein, Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Photo by Mike Lang, Sarasota Herald-Tribune.