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California’s Early Childhood Caregivers: ‘We Are Not Babysitters. We Are Educators’
They absorb tears and trauma with a smile. They answer kids’ endless questions and meet shouts of “Look at me!” with loving patience. They are essential, now more than ever.
A collection of images of child care providers and teachers in a collage. In the main photo a woman holds the face of a young child.
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There are an estimated 2.9 million children under age 5 in California — and a quarter of them live in Los Angeles County.

Parents count on a vast network of caregivers, mostly women of color, to help raise these kids.

Child care workers are educators teaching kids to talk, walk, read and process Big Feelings. They potty train and identify developmental delays. They help parents navigate a quagmire of subsidized child care programs. They administer medication. They absorb tears and trauma. They nurture the curiosity of little minds and meet incessant shouts of “Look at me!” with a smile.

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About Child Care, Unfiltered

During the pandemic, they have risked their health and shouldered extra financial costs to keep families safe and allow parents to work.

They translated a fearful disease that many adults couldn’t quite comprehend into “un bichito muy malo” (a very bad little bug) to help children understand why they could no longer share toys and had to wear masks.

“We’re doing it all. We got 'Ph-Do’ degrees,” says South Central Los Angeles family child care provider Jackie Jackson. For the record, she also has a bachelor’s degree and more than 20 years of experience.

In this image, an adult plays with a child while sitting at a table in a classroom.
Jackie Jackson has cared for children in her South Central Los Angeles home for more than 20 years.
(Jackie Jackson for LAist)

The UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Child Care Employment identified 116,800 people in the state’s early childhood workforce, but that’s not even close to including every important person in a young child’s life.

“What [people] don’t know is that we’re here,” says Lancaster family child care provider Yvonne Cottage. “A lot of times we’re misinterpreted as the B word — as the babysitter, right? The infamous B word.”

Increasingly, some experts are pushing back on the distinction often made between child care and early childhood education.

Science tells us that the first five years of life are a time of rapid brain development, whether little kids are growing and learning in private preschools, publicly funded classrooms, a neighbor’s living room, at Grandma’s house, or at a licensed family child care home or day care center.

“Exploration is where the learning happens,” says University of Illinois Chicago human development professor Sarai Coba-Rodriguez. “If you have a trusting adult, who you trust is able to protect you and guide you and love you, then that’s where more exploration happens.”

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Manoja Weerakoon is the director of a Montessori preschool in La Habra, but you’re more likely to find her in a classroom than in her office.

“Sometimes I work in the baby class; I change diapers,” Manoja says. “I tell the teacher, ‘Take a break, I’ll change the diapers.’”

Her husband is the school’s administrator, and, though he’s cleared to teach, Manoja tries to keep him out of the classroom — the kids love him, she says, so he’s too much of a distraction.

In this image, three children are pictured hugging each other and smiling in front of an adult.
Manoja's husband Adam does the preschool's finances, transportation and cooks. "Only [a] few parents know who cooks, but the kids love his food," she says.
(Manoja Weerakoon for LAist)

La Habra Montessori cares for families who can pay for child care out of pocket as well as low-income families who qualify for subsidized child care through the state, though it’s not uncommon for families to wait weeks and even years on waitlists.

What does child care look like for you now?
  • Share a photo and your story with the hashtag #childcareunfiltered. We may even feature some of your community stories on LAist throughout the summer.

One study from the nonprofit Advancement Project found that 51% of babies and toddlers in Los Angeles were eligible for the state subsidized child care program, but just 6% actually attended those programs.

Manoja says instead of turning families away when they don’t qualify for subsidies or are stuck on waiting lists, she’s lowered the tuition or, in some cases, eliminated it completely.

“There are situations like that, where I think at grassroots level, you have the power to help people,” Manoja says.

In this image, there is a child wearing headphones, a Chromebook, a water bottle, and a face mask.
During the pandemic, Susana completely changed the schedule at her family day care home to fit the kids’ distance learning needs.
(Susana Alonzo for LAist)

When Brenda Cruz started at Providence Saint John’s Early Childhood Directions program, she noticed the other teachers grabbing their first, second and third cup of coffee each morning.

“I’m like, ‘OK, well, I’m young, I have energy to put on these kids,’” Brenda says. “Once you start working with them, [it] makes you realize, ‘No, I actually need ALL my energy to work with them.’”

When she talks about her students, Brenda peppers her sentences with the vocabulary of child development. Climbing and jumping exercises, that’s “gross motor skills” — big muscle movement. Walking in a straight line to snacktime is an “opportunity to teach children how to cope with transitions.”

“I like to see them grow,” Brenda says. “I like to see them progress, to increase, to enhance their skills that one day will support them in becoming successful and fulfilling human beings.”

In this photo, nine colorful children's toothbrushes are standing upright in a toothbrush holder near a window.
Tooth-brushing tutorials are also part of a child care provider's typical day, albeit one that was temporarily paused during the pandemic.
(Yvonne Cottage for LAist)

More than a quarter of California’s child care spaces are found in individual homes. The state licenses these family child care providers to care for up to 14 children.

“This is where the magic is coming from,” says Jackie Jackson, who calls her facility a family center — she puts emphasis on the word “family.”

On average in L.A. County, home-based child care is 17% to 36% cheaper than center-based care, depending on a kid’s age. These providers often offer extended and even 24-hour care —critical for working families.

Montebello provider Susana Alonzo says she has this motto: “Uno de mis lemas ha sido no sustituir a mamá,” she says — that she can’t replace a mother.

But what she can do, she says, is earn families’ respect and trust that their kids will be cared for, protected and loved at her house.

Home-based child care providers we talked to often spoke about the individualized attention they can give each child, including those with disabilities.

Susana has cared for kids with epilepsy, attention deficit disorder, autism and heart problems. She says they’ve been put on her path for a reason.

Susana says she can’t say no to these kids — and doesn’t want to.

In this image, four children lay on the floor with blankets, pillows, and a dog.
With some kids staying until midnight and others spending the night, there's rarely a time where there aren't children in Yvonne's Lancaster home.
(Yvonne Cottage for LAist)
In this image, two children hug each other in the classroom, while another child sits at a table.
"If they're coming in crying, it's like, ‘OK, here goes the morning already,’” Jeanne says.
(Jeanne Yu for LAist)
In this image, two children take naps on blue cots.
There is a cardinal rule in all child care settings — do not wake napping kids.
(Susana Alonzo for LAist)

Jackie says over the years, she’s worked with children who have sensory disorders, autism and developmental delays.

“I feel like every child that comes up on my doorstep, there’s something that our divine wants me to reach in and pull out of that baby,” Jackie says. “So my job is to go and fetch and find what it is.”

In this image, a teacher uses phones to play with a child in the classroom.
"I wanted people to see that we're more than just babysitters," Jackie says. "This is where the therapy come[s] in at."
(Jackie Jackson for LAist)

A young girl recently in Jackie’s care was hesitant to talk. Jackie worked with the child daily, play-talking on the telephone and animating puppets until the words started to flow.

“This is where we know we got the talent to make a difference,” Jackie says. “And we know we have the time to make a difference.”

In this image, a teacher points to a white board with letters and numbers on it.
One of several photos Jackie sent in depicting the vast and varied roles of child care providers.
(Jackie Jackson for LAist)

Last summer, about 40,000 California family child care providers unionized after almost two decades of organizing.

Providers in at least 11 other states have collective bargaining rights, and other child care unions have secured higher wages, professional development, and health insurance for their members.

California’s Child Care Providers United negotiated emergency relief for its members during the pandemic. Jackie is part of the committee negotiating the labor contract that will determine working conditions for providers who care for the children of low-income families who qualify for state subsidies.

“Providers don’t understand, and they don’t realize they have a voice,” Jackie says.

This is an image of Luz Hernandez wearing a shirt with her name spelled out in multiple colors, and a purple mask.
Luz's daughter tells her girls that their grandmothers (both seen in the photograph) are always watching.
(Luz Hernandez for LAist)

Luz Hernández relied on her mother in Mexico to help raise her daughters while she worked as a teacher.

Now a grandmother in Koreatown, she watches two of her grandchildren while her daughter Grisel works in food packing.

Luz says they sing, dance and laugh together, activities she often didn’t have time for with her grown daughters when they were kids.

This is an image of two young girls playing on a colorful floor mat in a living room full of children's toys.
Luz says grandaughters Valeria and Mariana are often mistaken for twins.
(Luz Hernandez for LAist)
This is an image of a young girl talking on a pink telephone.
The busy life of 4-year-old Valeria. Luz says she was "calling" her aunt.
(Luz Hernandez for LAist)

Nationally, 60% of families with children 5 years old and younger rely on some kind of non-parental care. Of those who do, 41% turn to relatives, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

In this image, a woman and child pose next to a Christmas tree.
Jane's own children grew up raising animals for 4-H. Now she shares a love of horses with her grandson, Adrian.
(Jane Canseco for LAist)

But not everyone has family close by. Luz also occasionally watches kids from a few other families in her neighborhood, something she began doing after she realized there were many moms who wanted to work, but had a hard time finding anyone they could trust.

Grandparents are another set of eyes and ears to mark critical developmental milestones.

Recently, Jane Canseco’s husband was worried that their 2-year-old grandson Adrian wasn’t speaking more. Yet on Jane’s watch one day, Adrian surprised her.

“I heard him say something the other day, and it was an 11-word compound sentence — and he’s not 3 yet,” Jane says.

In this image, a child sprays hose water into the air while outside.
Horses aren’t the only attraction for Adrian at the stable.
(Jane Canseco for LAist)

Adrian attends a home-based day care center in Orange across the street from Jane three days a week, then spends the late afternoons at her house until his parents get off work.

Cranky moods are soothed with a snack and a glass of milk, one of his favorites.

“We don’t have a routine,” Jane says. “I’ve never been good at a routine.” Her regular outings with her grandson include the park and the nearby horse stables.

In this image, a child and an adult roll around on the grass.
Adrian was too nervous to roll down the hill alone, but with help from grandma, “he thought that was great fun,” Jane says. “I thought it was itchy.”
(Jane Canseco for LAist)

“To me, this is how kids should grow up. Just out in nature with animals,” Jane says. “And in conversation with somebody.”

"Oh! it went up to the roof!" Charlie shouts, as a ping pong ball bounces off the concrete in front of his grandmother, Maria.
(Maria Gutierrez for LAist)
“I try to make his life happy all the time,” Maria says of her grandson, Charlie. “That's my main mission.”
(Maria Gutierrez for LAist)

In between nanny jobs during the pandemic, Melissa helped her 6-year-old nephew, Max Kornfeld, with Zoom kindergarten.
(Melissa Rivera for LAist)

More than once, when Melissa Rivera has told people she’s a nanny, they’ve responded : “Oh, you’re still babysitting?” And she has to clarify: “No, I’m nannying.”

There’s a difference.

“I always tell the parents, I say, even before I started teaching, ‘Don’t consider me an extension of you. Consider me an extension of their teacher,’” Melissa says.

San Fernando Valley nanny Sofi also assisted with virtual school for 6-year-old Leo.
(Sofi Villalpado for LAist)

She’s currently studying for a bachelor’s degree in education and has taken classes in nutrition, discipline, child development and newborn care, learning the ins and outs of everything from rashes to organic mattresses.

“I get to be able to be there for the growth and the development and the good times and the hard times,” Melissa says.

Melissa attributes her love of kids to her mom, who ran a child care business in their Colorado home.
(Melissa Rivera for LAist)

She started working for a Ventura County family with kids ages 2, 4 and 5 in October. For the most part her focus is on the kids, who call her Mimi, but occasionally there are other household tasks like dishes, toy wrangling and doing the family’s laundry.

“Can you imagine folding your boss’s underwear, you know?” Melissa says. She doesn’t think twice about chores like that now.

“I’m results driven,” Melissa says. “So I really don’t mind doing it.”

Melissa is studying for a bachelor’s degree in education. “I'm transitioning from nanny work to just being able to teach in-home kids,” she says.”It's kind of a new door that's opening for me.”
(Melissa Rivera for LAist)
When it comes to Star Wars video games, Sofi is the Padawan and Leo, the Jedi.
(Sofi Villalpado for LAist)
Pandemic-era classmates.
(Melissa Rivera for LAist)
“You just have to expand your heart and let these families and kids into your life to be effective,” Melissa says.
(Melissa Rivera for LAist)

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