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Parents Rally for Child-Care Subsidies

Fairfax County parents working to promote the expansion of child-care subsidies attend a county budget meeting to present their case. Above, Cynthia Gunera addresses the meeting as her daughter Jarely Soriano, 5, listens. Below, school board member Stuart D. Gibson talks with Richard Chew.
Fairfax County parents working to promote the expansion of child-care subsidies attend a county budget meeting to present their case. Above, Cynthia Gunera addresses the meeting as her daughter Jarely Soriano, 5, listens. Below, school board member Stuart D. Gibson talks with Richard Chew. (Photos By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 29, 2007

Erika Austin never considered herself anyone's Erin Brockovich. A former security guard now going to school full time, the mother of three rarely has had a free moment.

But when she heard that funding for child-care subsidies for working parents had been cut in Virginia, keeping hundreds of children on waiting lists in Fairfax County, Austin, 34, joined a small group of parents who are hoping to pressure the state to add money to a program that helps defray the skyrocketing cost of day care. Although she receives the subsidy herself, she said, this is one issue worth taking time out for.

She said she knows how hard it can be to find quality, affordable child care. "This is such an important issue for us, for people who work in the county and are trying to make it," Austin said as she waited to pick up her youngest from day care after her own classes. "I can't imagine what I'd do without the subsidy, so I can feel for those who don't have it. This is for all of us."

Austin is one of 20 Fairfax County parents who have helped organize a Save Our Child Care campaign, designed to pressure state officials to increase money for the subsidy program for parents who work or are in school full time.

The budding activists are preparing a year-long push to cajole public officials -- from Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) to the Republican-led General Assembly -- to add funding for the program, which has a waiting list of nearly 3,600 children in Fairfax County.

Each member of the organizing team already receives the subsidy, and none is faced with having to find alternatives. That doesn't diminish their zeal.

"I know how hard it can be, and I just wanted to do anything I could to try and help," said Lura Woodlee, 29, a mother of three from Herndon. "If we don't step up, who will?"

Just 18 months ago, Fairfax did not have a waiting list because the county received additional money from the federal government that other jurisdictions did not.

But in the past seven months -- because the mechanism the county was using to provide additional funding dried up -- the waiting list has increased by an average of 200 children a month, according to county statistics.

The organizing began last year when Reston Interfaith, a nonprofit agency that offers services to the working class, poor and homeless, discovered that the chief concern of parents they work with was affordable child care. So, along with other child-care centers across the county, the agency began organizing available parents and developed a list of people who could speak publicly about the issue.

The activists worked with a statewide group, Richmond-based Voices for Virginia's Children, to educate politicians about the issue and to include activists from across the state. The broader goal is to chip away at the statewide waiting list, which stands at about 10,600 children.

As part of their efforts, the group hopes to get thousands of signatures and rally hundreds at the state Capitol during next year's General Assembly session. Because all 140 seats are up for grabs in the General Assembly this year, the group hopes to have an impact in key races.


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