By Linda D. Kozaryn
WASHINGTON -- The need for affordable, quality child care will never end, according to Sarah Hearn, a military child care specialist.
As family member support flight chief at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Hearns oversees two child development centers, an in-home Family Child Care Program and a School-Age Program. Plans call for a third child care center at the air base, east of Washington, D.C. Construction of a $4.5 million facility is slated to start in November and be completed by early 2001.
DoD officials report the base population includes nearly 2,000 children age 5 or younger. Each day, Hearn's certified caregivers tend close to 1,000.
"We can provide about 463 spaces in our centers right now," Hearn said. "The new center will provide 274 additional spaces.
"We also have 109 family child care providers who are each able to care for up to six children in their homes, including their own children under age 8. At this time, we care for about 450 children in those homes." Allowed by their commands to operate from their base quarters, family child care providers are held to strict training requirements and care standards.
About 100 children are enrolled in Andrews' part-day preschool program. The base School-Age Program for nearly 200 children provides care for kindergarten through grade six. There's a full-day summer camp with the same capacity.
"We'll never go out of business," Hearn said. "Right now, nearly 230 names are on a waiting list. The majority of those children are under age 3. That's the greatest demand that we have for care."
Most young military families with one child have another within two years, Hearn said. In theory, opening the new center would eliminate the waiting list. But as Air Force officials learned in the past, reality doesn't always follow theory.
"When Andrews' second center opened in 1994," Hearn said, "the waiting list hovered around 300 and we thought the center would offset that. However, once people know there's care available, they tend to come out of the woodwork."
People don't bother to sign up if the waiting list is already long, she explained. "If we get a third center, we'll have more people signing up and that will validate why we're going for a fourth center."
Normally, parents who can't place their child in a base development center will use a family child care home instead. "That's our best alternative for working parents," Hearn said. "It's a different type of care, but it's the same quality."
Military child care specialists try not to turn anyone away, Hearn said. They try to help parents find accredited child care in the local civilian community. If space in military facilities is unavailable, however, many spouses choose to stay at home rather than pay higher civilian fees.
"That's also a good way for us to market our family child care program," Hearn noted. "If you can't work on the outside and you want to have an income, then we recruit them as providers if we deem they're appropriate people to care for other children."
Military child care programs are nationally recognized for providing quality, low-cost care, Hearn stressed. If military parents have a common complaint, it's the need for more space, she said. "We have long lines waiting for people to get in because of the quality and because it's affordable."
DoD currently meets 58 percent of the identified need for child care and has a goal to meet 65 percent by 2003. The waiting list at Andrews is typical of those throughout the military, according to DoD family policy officials. Nearby, the Naval District of Washington, for example, has a waiting list of about 300, mainly for children under age 2.
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