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April 23, 2014

Start with the home

Program assists refugee women in becoming registered family childcare providers

At a table littered with markers, glue sticks and color cardboard paper, four women are quietly working. One is using a pair of plastic novelty scissors that make wacky patterns instead of straight lines to cut out two colorful drawings of a cat. She will glue these drawings to the thick cardboard paper in order to create a matching game that tests a child’s vocabulary and strengthens memory. Most people might just buy such a game from the store, but these women are accustomed to being resourceful.

They are all refugees — one has been in the United States for less than six months — and today they are wrapping up a career development program at the Navigate Enterprise Center, which is a subsidiary of Jewish Family & Career Services. Called the Family Childcare Project, the four-week course is designed to teach refugee women how to become registered family childcare providers.

The benefit is twofold. “A lot of refugee women find it hard to get into work; a lot have difficulties finding childcare that’s culturally sensitive to them or doesn’t have a language barrier,” says Cynthia Brown, the program’s coordinator. “This kills two birds with one stone.”

The women enrolled in the program become self-employed entrepreneurs who can offer language and cultural skills that other childcare providers may not be able to, and the customers whose children they watch are freed up to find their own employment. Many families already have informal setups like this, where kids whose parents work are sent to their cousin’s or grandma’s house. For these families, formalizing it with the state of Kentucky allows them to expand what they are doing to make additional income. It also opens them up to be on the receiving business end of the subsidized childcare vouchers that some low-income families qualify for.

That Child Care Assistance Program underwent drastic cuts last winter, effectively making Kentucky the most difficult state to get childcare assistance in. However, the General Assembly took action this month to restore CCAP back to its 2011 levels. That’s good news for childcare providers and the thousands of low-income workers who need the subsidy to survive.

Registered family childcare providers are allowed to watch three children outside of their own. The process for registering with Kentucky isn’t difficult, but it does require a background check, health exam, home inspection and codified safety and emergency plans. Then, of course, operating one requires keeping receipts, filing taxes and a general business plan. Those things can be tedious and intimidating to somebody not used to dealing with English paperwork or government bureaus.

Brown learned this firsthand with the inaugural bunch enrolled in the Family Childcare Project last year. Many in that much larger class of 18 women lived with roommates, meaning they weren’t in living situations that allowed them to be formal at-home childcare providers. Also, the multiple language barriers made classes a bit hectic. None ended up registering with the state, though one did use her training in the program to get hired at a local childcare provider.

“We consider that a good outcome,” says Brown. “With employers, if you don’t have a work history, it’s tough to get hired. This gives them a skill. Even if they don’t become (a registered childcare provider), they have something to show to people.”

Of her current batch of students, Brown is optimistic they’ll see more direct results. This is because instead of reaching out to the resettlement agencies, which deal mostly with those “fresh off the boat” newcomers, for this sophomore class, Navigate sought out established local community leaders in refugee and immigrant groups to ask for specific women who would be ideal for the program. They wanted to find women who’ve already gotten over the shock of moving to a new country — and ones whose English could at least carry them through the process.

The course learning itself was also altered to focus more on the business aspects the women seemed to struggle the most with. As of this writing, the four participants had individual meetings scheduled with Brown to begin the physical process of registering.

“The course has ended, but we’re not finished helping them,” explains Brown. “We are committed to seeing them through this whole process.”

If one registers and does well, she might consider eventually expanding from a registered family childcare provider to a licensed one able to watch additional children. From there, there’s even more room to expand.

Fatima (who requested we not use her last name), one of the current participants in the Family Childcare Project, isn’t looking too far into the future. “We learned from this program,” she says. Her English is slow but steady. “I’m hoping to do it (become a registered childcare professional).”

Before she immigrated to the United States in August of last year, Fatima spent 19 years in South Africa. She worked there for the last three years. She’s also the mother of five — three of her kids are already teenagers.

“So, I know what to do,” she explains.

Fatima isn’t worried about jumping into the workplace, but some of the women who have gone through the program come from cultures with strict gender roles. For these women, becoming a registered family childcare provider is one option that doesn’t make waves within their traditional family structures.

“We’re still figuring out all the aspects of the program. We’re making adjustments as we go,” says Brown. When you’re working with a community as diverse as the local refugee population, you have to.

Navigate will offer another round of the Family Childcare Project this summer. A fourth round may be held after that, though no dates have been set. For more information, visit navigatecenter.org.