Once upon a time there lived a small band of housewives with a large brood of children. For the most part, they were a contented, happy sort. They did, however, have one problem. They often had things to do--a doctor's appointment, shopping, a class--but no one to take care of the children.

They also had another problem: little money for a sitter even if they found one.

Daytime teen-age sitters were largely unavailable while day-care centers were costly and often "booked" to capacity. Even paying the bare minimum of $1 an hour added up all too quickly. Besides if one had to pay for a sitter while trying to find shoes on sale, the shoes were no longer a bargain. So the women continued either to stay at home or take their children along on errands. Neither option worked.

One day at the playground several women noticed that every mother was present with her own children. "There must be a way for us to divide these child-care duties so we can do things on our own without paying a sitter," said one. The idea of a neighborhood child co-operative was born.

There was nothing particularly new about child co-ops. A child co-op was merely a systemized variation of an old theme: the barter system. Time (points) could be exchanged for work (child care) rather than money. After much discussion, it was declared that the co-op would operate on a 4-point-per-hour (each 15-minute segment equaling 1 point) per-child basis. Each additional child in the same family would equal 1/2 point per 15 minutes. Each time a member would utilize the co-op, she would collect either plus or minus points depending upon whether she was the sitter or the consumer.

It was further decreed that the co-op be headed by a president who would serve a six-month term. Her job would be to conduct monthly business meetings, maintain central files, collect dues and act as mediator if the need arose.

The president was to be aided by the secretary, to be selected on a rotating basis. She would book time, keep accounts of completed sits and balance the books at the end of her month's term.

It was also declared that the president and the secretary were to be reimbursed for their time with 1 point and 2 points respectively each month by each club member. Eventually the finer details of the co-op were developed. It was determined, for example, that the secretary would locate a sitter by contacting the person with the most negative points first.

The group decided that they would limit themselves to 20 members from the neighborhood so they could get to know each other and the children would feel secure when staying in another person's home. The mothers were able to get out more; some even found part-time jobs and used the co-op members as their sitters, thus increasing the mileage from their paychecks. The children, unsurprisingly enough, became fast playmates and looked forward to visiting in each other's homes.

The co-op grew from a money-saving idea into a network for which there could never be a price tag. Where the housewives had once felt isolated and disconnected, strapped into a solitary routine with their young and often far removed from extended families, they felt a bond developing among themselves. In the group, there always was someone willing to help. If there was an illness, meals were sent, or co-op free sits were given.

As one woman said as her family was being transferred, "I feel as if I'm leaving part of my family here." Indeed that feeling rang true for many of the women; they had become a much-needed support group, a system of sisters if you will.

From such a small idea, something wonderful had grown.