BRATTLEBORO — Living in a small town has its pluses and its minuses, said Sue Graff, a field services director in Brattleboro for the Vermont Agency of Human Services, during a community meeting at Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development on Tuesday evening.
"It's great when you walk into the grocery store and you see everybody you know," she said to a group of about 35 people gathered to discuss the state of child care in Windham County. "It's not great when you walk into the food shelf and you see everybody you know."
The meeting was hosted by Winston Prouty, the Windham Early Childhood Educators Co-op and KidsPLAYce, and facilitated by Chloe Leary, executive director of Winston Prouty, and Dora Levinson, the regional coordinator for Building Bright Futures of Vermont. The meeting is an annual get-together for people concerned about child care and their local legislators. In attendance were state Sen. Becca Balint, Senate Majority Leader and a resident of Brattleboro, Rep. Mike Mrowicki, of Putney, Mollie Burke and Emilie Kornheiser, both of Brattleboro, and Emily Long, of Newfane.
"The Building Bright Futures council each year wants to find a way to connect with our local legislators about issues that affect young children and their families," said Leary. "We hope to identify something that is an issue locally that we can take action on. We want to identify what's working and what's not working and what are the actions we can take."
"I appreciate how Building Better Futures works across the state and the across community systems to integrate them," said Kornheiser. "They take a really sky-high look at what's working and what's not."
Before breaking up into discussion groups, the attendees specified three areas they wanted to focus on — access to physical, mental and dental healthcare; access to high-quality affordable child care; and resilient communities and social isolation. For about an hour, people in the discussion groups batted around ideas, challenges and possible solutions.
Margaret Atkinson, director of development and community relations at Winston Prouty, said while agencies and organizations are making inroads through programs such as the Vermont Blueprint for Health and Community Health Needs Assessment, more work needs to be done.
"Ninety-eight percent of children have some sort of health insurance," she said. "Though we know that some of that is not adequate for everything that kids need."
The challenge, she said, is there aren't enough practitioners focused on children and their families in the county. Many of the things people considering moving to the area look at are the same things that people with children are struggling to find, she said, including affordable housing and child care, high-speed internet access, and reliable transportation.
"It's very hard to get those specialists to live here and be part of our community," said Atkinson. "But that's true for medical practitioners of all stripes."
Leary said one thing everyone could do better is refining the message about the importance of child care services, with an emphasis on "professionalizing" the profession.
"People may not understand the importance of this issue," she said. Amplifying the message, said Leary, means enlisting men as well as women to speak about how important child care is to their personal and professional lives.
"The big picture is, this is about public investment," she said. "We have to get people on board thinking that this is a public good."
One way to get the message out, said Mrowicki, is to increase the wages of the people who care for children while their parents are working.
Mrowicki said child care subsidies help, "But they don't necessarily translate into higher wages for workers. There's not enough emphasis on the wages and salaries of early educators."
Starting everyone at $15 an hour would be a good start, he said, but it's still not enough. Again, said Mrowicki, part of the problem is sending a message about how important it is for children to have high-quality child care provided by people that are getting paid what they deserve.
"Nobody is getting paid what it actually costs," agreed Leary. "How do we talk about this?"
Even things that are working well, said Graff, have challenges connected to them.
"We have a lot of great services and resources and lots of ways to connect people to them," she said. "But if people don't know about those resources, or don't value them, or they're not being told about them from somebody they trust, it doesn't matter. None of it will help."
Graff said the providers could do a better job of building peer-to-peer networks where people could share experiences and help each other make connections to services and resources.
"This could be a low-cost mechanism for helping people access what they need, when they need it," she said.
"A lot of the social isolation in our communities is that people with young children need to work so much to make ends meet and that leaves not even a millisecond for connecting, community building, volunteering or asking for help," said Kornheiser. "The more we can do to strengthen our economy overall and get more money in people's pockets, the stronger our community will be."
Long said her particular focus, due to her background, is in education. She is a member of the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs.
"Some of the bills that are really important to you are coming out of my committee," she said. "Minimum wage, paid leave and housing issues."
As the majority whip in the House, said Long, she is often telling people to slow down. "For instance, we don't need to do anything more around education at the moment ... we don't need new initiatives. We need to find a way to support our agencies with the legislation we already have passed."
This is also reflected in the state agencies that are tasked with supporting child care issues, said Long. "Our agencies aren't resourced enough to actually support the work that all of you are trying to do in the places you are working. We need to fix that and it's not easy. That's why I am saying don't do anything new."
Burke said there's a simple solution for many of the challenges facing working parents.
"We need publicly funded child care for everyone," she said. "It's unbelievable that we don't have it in this country. The benefits would be great for de-stressing people and boosting the economy."
Burke is a member of the House Committee on Transportation, which is studying how to improve rural public transit.
"It's very complicated ... especially out in very rural areas,"she said.
Balint, a former educator who taught middle school, said it's crucial that legislators hear the stories of people with children and the providers who support them. Without those stories, they can't legislate efficiently around minimum wage, medical leave insurance, housing and transportation.
"When we know that there are kids in our community that don't have stable housing, when we know that there are kids who are living in tents or being shuffled from house to house, we know this is impacting their learning and their development," said Balint. "But it's also impacting our entire community."
Balint said the entire state needs more affordable housing, but Windham County is "at ground zero" with some of the lowest vacancy rates in the state.
"I am going to continue to fight for more housing," she said. "We are going to push for another big investment in housing."
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or firstname.lastname@example.org.