Twenty plus years ago, I was miserably pregnant. It was August. Any mom who has ever lived through pregnancy in a Kansas August can relate. I vividly recall struggling to squish my sweaty, swollen feet into unlaced canvas shoes. I was so huge I had removed the laces and my feet still fought to be contained.

First-time parents may also be able to relate to this, at that point, we had not even considered day care. I was nine months pregnant and had focused so much on preparing the room, washing little sleepers and writing thank you notes from the baby showers, I conveniently procrastinated on that very important item.

A neighbor expressed interest in caring for the baby, but that did not feel right. She was not a licensed day care provider. We started researching local options and found essentially none. At that time in Newton, the largest day care facility was limited to children of hospital employees. A second facility had recently opened but had no vacancies for infants.

We were fortunate to work in Wichita, and found day care there. It cost more than $6,000 a year.

Fast-forward 15 years, and I found myself in the same position. I was pleasantly surprised that Newton Community Child Care was now open to all members of the community, and had an opening for my infant daughter. Having her in a quality care environment close to my employer was a major factor in my decision to accept the job.

Thankfully, I am officially past the time of life where I need to secure day care. No more babies for this mama. And selfishly, I could not be more relieved because the local landscape has changed once again. The reports are bleak for working families.

According to Child Care Aware of Kansas, there are some fairly significant gaps in the supply of day care and the demand for services across the state. Their Harvey County numbers should be an eye-opener for all of us.

They released the “2017 Child Care Supply Demand Report,” and found 163,889 children under the age of six potentially in need of childcare statewide. Out of 2,840 children under the age of six living in Harvey County, 1,818 are considered in need of care.

Harvey County’s capacity to meet the demand for day care is 37 percent, which means almost two-thirds of the families looking for care are not able to find it.

I imagine this number will be even worse in 2018. Most of the data used for this report was from early in 2017, before Harvey County experienced a big blow to day care capacity following the closing of Sunshine Academy in September.

Access to day care has been one of Harvey County United Way’s investment strategies for many years. In the 2017-2018 grant cycle, the board awarded $32,500 to four organizations providing day care and latchkey services.

In the most basic terms, Harvey County United Way funds day care scholarships for low-income families to provide quality early education for children, and to keep parents at work.

Investments in early education pay off at a rate of 8:1. Kindergartners entering school socially and academically ready to learn are more likely to complete high school.

Parents with reliable day care are more likely to become and stay employed. This I can emphatically attest to from my own personal experience. Ultimately, local employers and the community’s economy benefit from reduced absences and lower unemployment rates.

The four organizations receiving HCUW grants held licenses from the State of Kansas to provide care for up to 535 children from birth to fourth grade. They were Hesston Community Child Care, Newton Community Child Care, Sunshine Academy and USD 373 Latchkey. Hesston Child Care and Sunshine Academy both provided school-aged services, otherwise known as latchkey.

Each year we hear a common theme from grant applicants: staffing is a chief concern. While a day care center may be licensed to provide care for 99 up to children, if qualified staff are not hired, classrooms sit idle and waiting lists grow.

For example, Newton Community Child Care is licensed to take 55 children. They have 42 enrolled and 40 on their waiting list. Seems like a simple fix, right? But without teachers they cannot care for more children.

Retention becomes an even bigger issue. Centers invest in state-mandated training hours for all employees (16 hours annually by year 2020), but low wages and few benefits equate to high turnover rates. Training investments walk out the door with the employee.

I wish I had answers. Childcare is an expensive proposition for any individual or organization.

So let us start with this simple statement, the lack of childcare is an even bigger expense for the community.

— Tina Payne is the director of Harvey County United Way. She can be reached harveyunitedway@gmail.com.