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Features

The cost of caring

The emphasis at Happy Workers Children's Center has been on the kids for 77 years despite the never-ending discussions of money.

By JOHN BARRY
Published December 7, 2006


Four-year-olds Joshua Hepburn and Destiny Register lustily sing The World is a Rainbow with their classmates during an open house at Happy Workers Children’s Center in St. Petersburg. The song is part of a curriculum developed for Italian families after World War II that tries to give children a larger worldview.
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[Times photos: Carrie Pratt]
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Lisa Murray, a teacher at Happy Workers, holds a sick child, Elijah Williams, 5, while waiting for his mother. Elijah attended the center’s Peace Camp last summer.

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Happy Workers Children's Center has been around since 1929, and Virginia Irving has run it for the last 17 years. Hundreds of times, she has asked parents a question. The parent is usually seated with head bowed. Irving leans forward to ask it, pressing in, her head tilted, trying for eye contact.

This question:

"Can you handle that?"

Irving is sitting at a preschool play table. The kids are outside. She looks emotionally drained.

She just had a meeting with a parent.

Why don't you tell that story, she says. For her it's the same story over and over.

She and the parent sat at a play table just across from each other. A day care application and the parent's paycheck stubs lay on the table between them.

She looked at a two-week pay stub. The take-home figure on it was $500.

Not a good number. Rates at Happy Workers, a nonprofit day care, the oldest in St. Petersburg, are based on income. This parent was poor, but not certifiably. She made just enough not to qualify for federally subsidized day care. She was only unofficially poor.

Irving asked, apprehensively, sympathetically, "Is $70 too much?"

The parent hesitated. They always do. Irving knew she was doing mental arithmetic: $500 take-home minus rent, groceries, gas. The parent looked down.

Silence.

Then she said, "Oh, okay."

Irving bent forward, tilted her head to the side, looked up into the parent's eyes - just as she does when she talks to an upset child. Her voice was gentle.

"Can you handle that?"

Conscious of children

The center uses a teaching philosophy developed after World War II by mothers of a northern Italian city called Reggio Emilia. It repudiated fascism. The mothers said, "We don't ever want to see children raised this way again." Out of that eventually came a curriculum and a declaration called The Rights of the Children:

"Children have the right to be recognized as subjects of individual, legal, civil and social rights; as both source and constructors of their own experience, and thus active participants in the organization of their identities, abilities and autonomy."

Irving always thinks about those noble words.

"We had a meeting on the budget for 2007," she says. "We were looking at ways to balance it. A board member said, 'Well, if we increase fees we can raise another $25,000.' We usually increase fees by $2 or $3. Never more than $5.

"I said, 'Not this year.'

"I see these parents calculating. 'How can I pay $70 a week out of $500 I bring home every two weeks?'"

The parents really don't come to Happy Workers because of Reggio Emilia. For all they know, it's a tomato sauce.

"I think they come because they can afford it."

Irving went over to Reggio Emilia, a town with a socialist tradition, much persecuted during Italy's fascist period. "I felt overwhelmed by the whole idea of family that I saw and how they respected children." The little municipality pays $12,000 child care subsidies for every child. The yearly Florida subsidy for voluntary pre-K is $2,500 per child.

"They're a burden to us. Even our government sees them as a burden."

A lot of Italian child care methods are based on American research into early brain development. "The Italians told me, 'You guys do the best research in the world. You just don't use it.' "

Happy Workers is such a utopian-sounding phrase with a socialistic 1930s ring to it. It conjures a pleasant mental image of a communal haven.

That was the idea 77 years ago when Mrs. Willie Lee McAdams, started it beside Trinity Presbyterian Church, where her husband was pastor. She promised a safe place for children of the working poor. She charged parents 25 cents a week.

In bleak 1929, McAdams probably had to ask:

"Can you handle that?"

Numbers game

Seventy-seven years later, the question hangs in the air.

The parent said she'll have to think about it. She'll come back later.

"I know that means she isn't coming back," Irving says.

She was still pressing in, working for eye contact.

"If I drop it to $65, can you handle that?"

The parent said, "Maybe $60."

A deal was struck. Or it seemed so. The paperwork went into a stack. The parent left, promising to come back.

The stack is about 15 thick. After two weeks, the applications that have gone unclaimed are thrown out. They are replaced by other applications, waiting for a parent to really come back.

John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or jbarry@sptimes.com.

[Last modified December 6, 2006, 14:41:18]


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