After pandemic closures, Presidio Coalition for Children working toward bright future for local daycare

PRESIDIO — The Presidio Coalition for Children, a nonprofit which operates the only licensed daycare center in town, recently received a $15,000 donation from the Presidio Municipal Development District to help the organization bounce back after the pandemic. After nearly 18 months of closures, the center is back open, but has been unable to attract the staff it needs to expand its day-to-day operations and ensure the success of longer-term projects like a food bank for Presidio’s working families. 

The daycare center has plenty of room to grow. The facility, a building on Presidio Elementary School’s campus that the Presidio Coalition for Children rents from the school district, can accommodate up to 150 students. There’s a big dining room where breakfast and lunch is served, and a bright library full of titles in English and Spanish. There’s an outdoor playground for the milder months, and a small indoor gym that gets a lot of use on 118-degree summer days. “If I can recognize the cleanliness and the organization and the importance of this facility as a childless adult woman, I think moms probably fall in love with this place when they come here,” said Presidio Municipal Development District Executive Director Jeran Stephens. 

PCC Director Viviana Cataño, who also serves as Presidio’s municipal judge, helped open the center in 2018, when the facility opened with help from the Texas Workforce Commission after a failed attempt to start a daycare through the YWCA. “Before that, there was no place — I think there was a daycare here a long time ago, but nothing licensed, nothing established,” she explained. Now, the center can serve kids from infancy to age 12, and is hoping to expand its community outreach. 

One important program that the Presidio Coalition for Children hopes to grow is its food bank, which currently serves 10 families. The food bank receives donations from the West Texas Food Bank in Odessa. The child care center’s high school interns package a week’s worth of food that students can take home with them, eliminating some of the stigma of waiting around outside a distribution center. While it mostly serves students, the PCC aims not to turn anyone away, and has made food deliveries as far away as Candelaria. “If we know of somebody who obviously really needs groceries, we are here to help,” explained Cataño.

According to the Texas Tribune, the entire Big Bend region is considered a “child care desert,” defined as a place where there are at least three times as many children under five than there are slots in licensed child care centers. While 97 percent of daycares that closed in Texas during the pandemic have reopened, there’s been an overall decline in the number of child care providers, making it difficult for centers to operate at the same capacity they were pre-pandemic. 

“There’s been a waiting list ever since we reopened again, and that’s been a problem because we don’t have enough staff,” Cataño explained. “About three weeks ago, I had to explain to [a mother] that we could not take her child, and she was in a tough spot. She had gotten a job and she really needed child care. It is really difficult to have those conversations and not be able to take children into the center because of staffing issues.” 

Currently, the center has 12 students, cared for by one full-time employee and one almost-full-time employee who clocks about 30 hours a week. At one point before the pandemic, enrollment was closer to 50. Texas state law determines which age groups of kids can be mixed or share classrooms and facilities, further limiting how many children can be enrolled at the daycare with its current staffing.

Cataño runs an internship program through Presidio High School to help fill some of those gaps. There’s a limit to what her high school interns can do, and they are mostly assigned to older children in afterschool care. Still, they make a huge difference. “It’s really fun, and I really enjoy working here,” said Kimberly Reyes, a high school student involved in the program about seven hours a week.

The daycare is hoping to use PMDD’s gift to offer better wages. Currently, they’re fixed at around $8 an hour. Child care is not a particularly highly-paid industry, but Presidio’s wages are well below the state average of $12, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “There has to be a love for it, it’s really more of a vocation,” said Virginia Price, CEO of the Presidio Coalition for Children. 

Still, she’d like the wages her organization can offer to reflect the amount of experience and education the position requires, including additional qualifications like CPR training, which prospective employees are expected to pay for. “The state requirements are very specific about the level of education, knowledge and experience you have to have.”

“The other issue is that we’ve had people apply but they have not completed high school,” Price continued. “We cannot stay within our budget and comply with the state standards if our caregivers do not have at the very minimum, a high school education or GED.”

Price, Cataño and Stephens brainstormed ways to attract more employees, and plan to enlist the help of state agencies like Workforce Solutions Borderplex. “There are a lot of older women that maybe have never worked outside the home, but now they need to earn some money, or they just want to work with children and would be amazing at it. They probably don’t even know where to start. Maybe that’s something we need to look into,” Stephens suggested.

Lola Murillo, the center’s lone full-time employee, works 10-hour shifts to ensure that care is available for working parents when they need it — all while raising children of her own. “With my kids, I get everything ready the day before,” she explained. “I come home, I help with schoolwork. But I don’t get to see them much.” 

“That shows inner strength and I see it over and over in this community every day in little ways,” Presidio Municipal Development Director Jeran Stephens told Murillo. “You make a significant difference just with your contribution of working here for all the other moms that depend on this service, and you’re still taking care of your family. Presidio women are pretty damn amazing.”