by Gail Esterman; featured photo by Princess Long
My name is Gail Esterman and I have always been drawn to stories about how children are treated by our society and wondered why we choose to fail so many when we could do better. In my professional life, spanning New York City and Virginia, I’ve worked in mental health, adult and early childhood education, and non-profit program and policy development. I have had the privilege to get to know many individuals who quietly do the hard, unrecognized, and under-compensated labor of care and community building. In that spirit, I wanted to share the story of two successful Charlottesville business owners who I met through a professional development program for early childhood care and education providers. As a white ally, I also feel compelled to share images that disrupt the deficit narrative put out by the mainstream media about the Black community.
News headlines drum a steady beat these days about the child care crisis. Reporters highlight unaffordable tuition, the dearth of available spots, especially for infants, and the low pay – less than what fast food servers make – that leads to a revolving door of high staff turnover and classroom closures. Young families from the working- and middle-classes are left to cobble together a care plan and are unprepared for the lack of affordable options to keep their little ones safe, healthy, cherished, and learning while they work or go to school.
Even before the pandemic, child care offered a problematic business model. “We have a product that costs more to produce than most of the customers who need it can afford to pay. It’s that simple,” says Linda Smith from the Early Childhood Development Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “You can’t raise the wages of the staff without raising the fees to parents, and they’re tapped out.” Smith wants Americans to recognize child care as an essential public good that has to be paid for by society at large.
The reluctance to fund childcare is not just about fiscal conservatism. When I wrote to Representative Bob Good (R-VA) in 2021, urging him to support early childhood initiatives, his response was, “It would … give the government greater control of our children, and provide the opportunity for them to be indoctrinated with left-leaning curriculum at even earlier ages.” Clearly, there are issues of power and equity at play in what seems at face value to be a straightforward, bipartisan commonality – businesses need workers, workers need child care and everyone benefits from a strong system. Dig deeper and you’ll find that the burden of child care in the United States has historically been borne by women – mostly women of color. Unlike other developed countries where there is more recognition of the reality and needs of working families, women’s invisible labor subsidizes both families and businesses. Two Black women I’ve met in Charlottesville, Princess Long and Rita Cunningham, are making unique, laudatory, and successful efforts to help turn the tide when it comes to a dearth of childcare. I’ll tell you a bit of their stories here.
A Mother’s Touch Child Care
I park my car on a wide, quiet street in Charlottesville, looking forward to talking with Princess Long, a local child care owner. I have no trouble finding her house — the front yard is surrounded by a white wooden fence, the brightly colored materials and child-sized equipment on the lawn calling out an invitation to play. There is a toy kitchen, a “forest” made of foam pool noodles sticking up from the ground, a picnic table, and some climbers and slides. It doesn’t feel cluttered, but rather set up intentionally to appeal to small children. A sign lets me know I am at “A Mother’s Touch Child Care.”
I am here to learn about how Princess created a successful home childcare business during a pandemic. We sit together on the front porch while the children nap inside, supervised by another caregiver. “What inspired you to develop this magical place?” I ask, gesturing toward the yard and house. Princess explains that before opening her program, she worked in the food industry but knew that it wasn’t a forever thing. “Since I was a little girl, I was always involved in caring for children and seniors. I have a loving spirit,” she says. She dreamed of working for herself doing something she loved but was afraid to venture into the unknown. “I wasn’t mentally prepared right away.” In 2021, she wasn’t scared any more. “I thought, will I sink or float? Thank God I’m floating.”
I ask about the challenges of getting started. “The licensing process was very overwhelming. There was so much information to learn about the state regulations, food standards, and the childcare subsidy process. At times I felt like my pot was going to boil over.” Princess found community resources to “help us to be the best that we can be” like the Central Virginia Small Business Development Center, ReadyKids, Child Care Aware of Virginia, and the USDA Food Service. “People came out to the home and provided feedback and ideas you wouldn’t have thought of. For example, they brought our attention to asking children open-ended questions to get them thinking and talking more.” There were also grants to help purchase “anything that supports kids development.” She says, by now, most of the upkeep has become routine. At the same time, the regulations keep changing so there is always something new to incorporate.
“A Mother’s Touch” is licensed to enroll up to 12 children, the most that a home-based program can serve. “While we’re not a big center, we serve a community need.” Some families prefer a smaller setting, and like the mixed-age group and consistency. Princess has a long waitlist. “I hate to tell families ‘no.’ I hear the worry in their voices.” When she turns a family away, there aren’t many options – the supply simply doesn’t meet the demand. Additionally, a review of national 2019 data showed that only 16% of children eligible for a government subsidy were able to obtain one, limiting access even more for low-income families. The quality of the available slots varies. If a child care program isn’t full, there may be reasons why. One parent left A Mother’s Touch for a free preschool program, only to return a few weeks later because her daughter was not happy.
That brings me to the heart of the matter. Why do families choose “A Mother’s Touch Child Care,” and why do they stay? Here’s where Princess really lights up. “I think they see in my smile and my voice that I care for each and every child. There is such innocence in these early years, and it’s amazing to be part of their growth and development. We are dropping golden nuggets! I’m not just here for the paycheck. Here, we let kids be kids. We don’t impose limitations. We teach independence, community, and manners. Kids learn and grow through play.” Princess and her staff receive ongoing training on a new curriculum developed at the University of Virginia. She says proudly, “We were already doing so much of it. They have it organized into categories and explained the ‘why’ but we were on the right track.”
Princess notes that these days, many children don’t get to be outside enough. On her Facebook page, she shares photos of an outdoor obstacle course created for the children to use their large muscles. Another sequence shows a water-pouring activity that illustrates learning through sensory pleasure and excitement. Her page also displays a certificate from the Commonwealth of Virginia that designates A Mother’s Touch as a certified Small Micro, Woman-Owned, Minority-Owned business.
The program is part of the local community. Neighbors come over to play guitar or invite the children to visit their resident roosters. Even trash pickup becomes an interactive opportunity – the children run out to greet the “big green truck” on their weekly rounds. One day, the sanitation workers surprise them with a furry hand puppet who wants to play! On National Garbage Truck Day, the children paint a mural to hang on the fence, and bring small bags filled with snacks for their working friends. Princess jumps up to show me the chant she leads, pantomiming the motion of the truck as it picks up and empties the containers: “The arms go up up up, and then they shake, shake shake,” her body swiveling and arms coming down. Her enthusiasm is infectious.
As children get up from their naps, we bring our conversation to an end. Before I leave, I ask what’s next. Princess points to where she will be planting carrots, green beans, and tomatoes. She found someone willing to share some gardening expertise, and thinks the children will love it. I think she’s right.
“What would you say to someone wanting to get started in child care?” I ask as I close the gate. Princess pauses. “A love for children, and patience. Oh, and endurance.”
Rita’s Bright Beginnings
The day I’m scheduled to visit with Rita Cunningham, the owner of Rita’s Bright Beginnings, I park near the old JCPenney’s in the Fashion Square mall – or what’s left of it. The storefront is subtle, not screaming out that there is a childcare center. There are welcoming signs on the frosted windows and one inside designating them as a Breast-Feeding Friendly program. As I enter, Rita comes out to greet me and motions to a woman sit
ting behind the front desk reviewing a pile of files. I can tell right away that she is a licensing inspector from the Virginia Department of Education. Rita has only been open for 25 days in this location. While the unannounced inspection is routine, and not an indication that anything is wrong, I know Rita will want to be available to the inspector so we agree to reschedule for another time.
I return two days later to find out the inspection went well. I am aware that this is a huge relief, but not an accident. Rita has worked hard to open her first center, and she is serious about her success. I saw the space before Rita had decided to rent it, back in August 2022. Cracked vinyl floors needed repairs, walls had to be moved, and only a few sets of cubbies were pushed up against the walls. That day, Rita walked me around, showing where she imagined each classroom might be and how the kitchen would be set up. The location would be convenient with easy parking for parents needing a quick drop-off en route to school or work. I can’t wait to catch up with Rita now that the center is finally open, where it can hold up to 40 children.
Rita studied elementary education in college but realized her love was for younger children. She focused on classes about toddlers and preschoolers and decided that this was her life’s calling. After college, she worked in a few centers. When her own son turned three months old, she wanted to be at home with him. She also wanted to show other young children “what I see in them.” In 2014, Rita opened her first home daycare in Harrisonburg. When she moved to Charlottesville, she started “Rita’s Bright Beginnings” in her home. “A lot of businesses failed during the pandemic, but mine thrived. No matter what the crisis, people need child care.” Soon, Rita needed more space to serve more children and began to look for a larger facility.
Once she found the site, the work began. “There were inspections from the fire marshall, building inspectors, health department approvals – so many steps to go through before I could even turn in the application. I had to find staff and to figure out how many I would need. I’m choosy about staff even though it’s hard to pay them what we should because we can’t make the rates higher for families.” She pauses for a few seconds. “Getting the building permit took much longer than it should have – they just didn’t see my vision and dreams and kept asking me why I wanted to be there. At times like those, I’ve wanted to give up, but I pushed through and took it day by day.”
Word-of-mouth referrals have been plentiful with some paying in advance to reserve a spot. “Families see that their children will be safe and loved here. In my home program, I had a huge outside area which was great but now we don’t have the big yard. Families were comfortable with me, but it’s not just me anymore. I tried to think about how to make the center reflect ‘me.’ I thought, ‘what else we can offer? What will make us stand out?’ We provide breakfast, lunch, nap mats, food, formula, diapers, and wipes. We have an infant menu, a non-infant menu, and vegan options.”
Rita continues, “Birthdays are a big deal here – the whole center celebrates the child. We are inclusive of all different types of holidays and celebrations. We integrate different traditions and don’t leave anyone out. We offer a “loose parts” approach that provides children with materials to create and build instead of only presenting toys that can be used one way. We don’t do TV time; the recommendation from doctors is to limit it and parents are paying for their children to learn when they are here.”
I ask Rita if she sees herself as an entrepreneur and the answer is an unequivocal yes. “What keeps me going is my own kids. I want my kids to see what their Mom did. Someday this will be theirs. Whether it’s a daycare or something else, I want them to know they can help someone else in life.” Rita adds, “It still amazes me when I go places and people recognize me as the lady with the daycare.”
Rita is driven by a very personal mission. “Maybe some of the kids don’t have someone at home who has enough time for them because of everything they are dealing with. So we’re the ones loving them, we’re the ones teaching them. We spend time on them.” She becomes pensive. “I didn’t have a mother and father present when I was growing up. When they come here, kids are getting everything I wanted but didn’t have.”
As I get ready to go, I ask Rita what keeps her up at night? She pauses. “Did I get it all done?” I look around and am struck by just how much she has gotten done and how bright the future is for Rita’s Bright Beginnings.
Princess and Rita represent a long, long tradition in the Black community of educators, innovators, and advocates for the next generation. They bring their unique gifts to their businesses and our community is fortunate to have them. In spite of the ongoing challenges like low wages, mounting demand, and ever evolving regulations, these women display a resilience that nurtures the community around them. If the system doesn’t change, it will continue to be hard for more small, culturally diverse business owners to get started, stay afloat, and offer families solid, high-quality choices. It is a complex issue and we need more voices at the table asking why this system isn’t working for families or providers, and how we can make it better.