Weston Purvis learns through play at Little Blue Preschool in Carbondale. Courtesy photo

After birthing my first child, my husband and I thought we would finagle our schedules to avoid paying for child care. He worked from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and I worked as a concierge at the Ritz-Carlton from 3 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. The schedule was brutal as I was responsible for getting up at night to feed my baby.

After about three months, Sleep deprivation glazed over my days. My forced smile and performance “on stage” were starting to sag. Living an increasingly false narrative of “It’s my pleasure,” I desperately started hunting for child care.

I called every child care center from Aspen to Carbondale, and the result was the same: waitlist, waitlist, waitlist. I called back weekly until that glorious day when the receptionist said, “We only have one day—”

“I’ll take it!” I said like a child snatching a toy. With each additional day of child care, my sanity started to return.

I planned the conception of my second child around getting grandfathered into Blue Lake Preschool. I actually called the school to tell them I was pregnant even before I told my family. The preschool had become my village, and I was not going to risk losing it.

My son started kindergarten this year, and our early childhood season was complete. The graduation ceremony was sweet, with our son standing along with his classmates as an “Original Gangster” who had attended the school from three months to five years of age.

Over the eight years I trusted Blue Lake Preschool to safeguard my children, they became part of my family. If I had not found child care, I might have had to drop out of the workforce, a trend many mothers experienced during the persisting pandemic. Today, there are over 500 people on the Blue Lake waitlist, with an average wait of two years.

For the past 20 years, Michelle Oger has been the executive director of Blue Lake Preschool. She stressed that it is imperative that expecting parents sign up for multiple child care waitlists as soon as they know they are pregnant, particularly if they are working parents without a support system nearby.

“There are so many families who don’t know that there is a shortage of child care,” she said, “whether they are in the Valley and this is their first child or people who move from out of town, especially from the Front Range or a larger city where there is an abundance of child care.”

Blue Lake Preschool is open during school breaks, holidays and the summer to aid working parents. It is one of the few child care centers offering full day care from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and accepting infants as young as six weeks. Their average full-day rate is $76 per child.

Oger said it is difficult but essential to pay a living wage to teachers, many of whom commute from Silt or Rifle. They also offer before and after school care for school-age children, providing drop-off and pick-up services for five area elementary schools.

The school makes up for its annual $200k budget shortfall with fundraisers and grants. Blue Lake offers an income-based scholarship fund that keeps child care costs under a certain percentage of parents’ income. The scholarship, however, is dependent upon grant funding.

Oger said child care “is a balancing act of trying to keep child care affordable, especially for people with two or even three kids in child care. It is extremely expensive and often more than their mortgage.”

Blue Lake is a private preschool providing child care for 147 children in El Jebel and another 39 kids at its newer location in Carbondale. They are planning an expansion of their Carbondale location, which will make space for 45 more kids and afterschool services by the fall of 2023. Blue Lake also has a new child care center in the works, located across the street from The Arts Campus at Willits. It will accommodate up to 150 kids but has a longer timeline for completion.

The child care crisis strains the workforce and creates emotional and financial stress for parents. Businesses, governments and individuals must come together to ensure our community’s psychological and economic health starting with the youngest generation.

Flexibility in work schedules would help alleviate many parents’ logistical issues. While it is unrealistic to have work hours match school hours, I think that businesses need to prioritize work-life balance to allow parents to be more present in their children’s lives. It is paramount for a healthy society. In the meantime, parents will keep scrambling to piece together child care and figure out how to pay for it.

Oger said, ”Business and community members should get behind supporting early childhood [education] because it affects your shopping experiences, dining experiences and recreation. … If there are no people to work at those places, they are not going to be open.”