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Much of the New Orleans economy has rebounded since Hurricane Katrina, but day care, or a lack of it, remains a huge obstacle. In recent months, childcare advocacy groups have joined forces to provide grants, contracts, training, even advertising for new childcare providers.

NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

AUDIE CORNISH: You need work to pay for childcare, but you need childcare to go to work. That Catch-22 had parents like Denice Warren Ross, Jean-Marc Duplantier, and Catherine Juzel(ph), thinking long and hard about staying in New Orleans.

Ms. DENICE WARREN ROSS (Resident, New Orleans): Our childcare center didn't reopen. And we said goodbye to all the teachers on Friday before the storm and never saw anyone again.

Mr. JEAN-MARC DUPLANTIER (Resident, New Orleans): We were on several other waiting lists and it seem rather bleak, you know, number 250 or something on the waiting list, and really no promise at all of child care.

Ms. CATHERINE JUZEL (Resident, New Orleans): It was hard. We were driving to Metairie every day for child care, which is about a 35-minute commute each way, then have to go downtown for work.

CORNISH: There are about a hundred institutionalized day care centers in the region that used to have three times that amount. These parents say they are lucky to be dropping off their kids at the Abeona House. It's a nonprofit childcare center that Denice Warren Ross founded with a group of parents who shared babysitters after the storm. Now, they have a building, 30 kids, and a five-year waiting list.

Ms. ROSS: It was really challenging. I mean, I was in charge of permitting, and I was becoming increasingly pregnant. So, at least everybody knew who I was because of my belly, when I walked into city hall, but we were competing with Donald Trump and all sorts of other developers for permits.

CORNISH: And finding staff wasn't easy, says Abeona House director and parent Emmy O'Dwyer.

Ms. EMMY O'DWYER (Director, Abeona House Child Discovery Center): First of all, the hiring market is so competitive. Post-Katrina, all the jobs started paying more. You know, Burger King is offering $5,000 hiring bonuses if you worked there for a year. Starbucks pays the same thing that we do.

CORNISH: Paying childcare workers enough to cover the city's higher rents means higher tuition for parents — upwards of $1,000 a month. This shortage is compounded because most of the childcare before the storm came from home-based caregivers with six kids or less. There were 3,000 family homecare providers in 2005. Today, there are fewer than 200. Nonprofit groups like Agenda for Children are trying to give those numbers a boost.

Unidentified Woman: Nap time, (unintelligible), pick up, emergency, termination of care, all these things are things that you should consider when you put together your parent's handbook. Okay?

CORNISH: The agency offers classes on how to start up a home daycare, and almost all the participants are new to the business, except Catherine Washington. She says she was fortunate to have enough insurance to rebuild.

Ms. CATHERINE WASHINGTON (Homecare Provider): It's a mind thing and a lot of people's mind is 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.

Ms. AISHA THOMAS (Director, D.J.'s Learning Castle): God is good. God is great, and we thank him for our food. Amen. Bless cooks. All right.

CORNISH: Aisha Thomas is serving up smothered pork and mashed potatoes to a roomful of toddlers in the newly opened D.J.'s Learning Castle. Her 2-year-old son, D.J., has special needs, and she started her own business because she couldn't find a daycare that would take him. At first, Thomas thought she would start a small home operation, but running a daycare program in her neighborhood wasn't an option.

Ms. THOMAS: This area is still not fully up and running and I live four blocks from here. So, it's trust issues with parents, dropping them all by abandoned homes, and I'm the only home right here. You go three more blocks, it's abandoned.

CORNISH: Sylvia Thomas, her mother and business partner, couldn't offer her a home either. It still stands gutted and dormant while she sues her insurer. Sylvia Thomas says they hacked through eight months of red tape because five different government agencies license daycare centers in one way or another.

Ms. SYLVIA THOMAS (Co-Founder, D.J.'s Learning Castle): I mean, we ran with paperwork because it's like there was no organization of the structure to get the business together. Doing - I found out that doing business in New Orleans is not easy at all.

CORNISH: D.J.'s Learning Castle has been added to Agenda for Children's listings. The agency has a hotline for parents searching for care, and they say some days they get as many as 25 calls. They don't expect that to ease up, especially now as school winds down and summertime is on the way.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, New Orleans.

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