Family Affair: Childcare in Post-Katrina New Orleans

Aisha Thomas and her mother, Sylvia, at the opening of a New Orleans daycare center. i i

Aisha Thomas and her mother, Sylvia, attend the opening of D.J.'s Learning Castle in New Orleans' Gentilly area. The childcare center received a grant from the Agenda for Children, a nonprofit agency that also offers classes on opening a home day care. Audie Cornish, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Audie Cornish, NPR
Aisha Thomas and her mother, Sylvia, at the opening of a New Orleans daycare center.

Aisha Thomas and her mother, Sylvia, attend the opening of D.J.'s Learning Castle in New Orleans' Gentilly area. The childcare center received a grant from the Agenda for Children, a nonprofit agency that also offers classes on opening a home day care.

Audie Cornish, NPR

Day care services in New Orleans have been among the slowest segments of the local economy to rebound from Hurricane Katrina. In recent months, childcare advocacy groups have joined forces to provide grants, contractors, training and even advertising for budding childcare providers. But in the years since the storm, parents have been the ones to try to knit back together the social networks upon which childcare in the city were built.

"Our childcare center didn't reopen. And we said goodbye to all the teachers the Friday before the storm and never saw anyone again," said Denice Warren Ross, who took matters into her own hands and co-founded a care center.

She and other parents say a lack of childcare has them thinking long and hard about staying in a city that's still hobbled by Katrina more than two-and-a-half years after the storm roared ashore.

There are about 100 institutionalized day care centers in a region that used to have three times that amount.

One of them is Abeona House, a nonprofit childcare center that Ross founded with a group of parents who shared babysitters after the storm. Now they have a building, 30 children and a five-year waiting list.

Abeona House Director Emmy O'Dwyer, who is also a parent, says that finding staff was no small chore.

"Post-Katrina, all the jobs started paying more," she says. "Burger King started offering hiring bonuses, $5,000 hiring bonuses if you work there for a year. Starbucks pays the same thing that we do."

Paying childcare workers enough to cover the higher rents in New Orleans means higher tuition for parents — upward of $1,000 a month. The childcare shortage is compounded because most of the childcare before the storm came from home-based caregivers with six kids or fewer. There were 3,000 family homecare providers in 2005. Today, there are fewer than 200.

Nonprofit groups such as Agenda for Children are trying to give those numbers a boost. The agency offers classes on how to start up a home day care.

"It's a mind thing and a lot of people's minds [are] just not focusing on the business now because they are still trying to get the homes together. Because you don't have a business without a home," said Catherine Washington, who is participating in one of the seminars.

The Agenda for Children has a hotline for New Orleans parents who are searching for childcare, and some days it gets as many as 25 calls. The nonprofit doesn't expect that to slacken — especially as school winds down and summer is on the way.

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