David Lawrence Jr., an advocate for children, stood before Fairfax County politicians and business leaders and asked for some answers.
"More than 4,000 children under age 5 in Fairfax have no health insurance," he said. "How could it be in a place so rich and generous? . . . The working poor are often left out of this country's largesse and decency."
His question underscored the theme of a community summit held last week to launch a nonprofit organization dedicated to beefing up early childhood education programs in the county. Called Fairfax Futures, the group spans the public and private sector and will attempt to enlist more business support and sponsorship of early learning.
Lawrence, president of the Florida-based Early Childhood Initiative Foundation and former publisher of the Miami Herald, was the keynote speaker at the event last Thursday. He appealed to business leaders to invest in children younger than 5 because they represent the county's future workforce.
Lawrence, who like many in the room never attended kindergarten, stressed the importance of reading to and interacting with children early, years before they enter kindergarten. Parents, he recognized, cannot always be there to do that.
"Two-thirds of women with children in the early childhood years are working outside the home," he said. "That is not about purchasing luxuries. That is about survival."
Other business sponsors said they see an urgent need for better child care now, if only to allay employees' concerns.
"As any corporation can tell you, without quality day care, you don't have a quality workforce," said Robin Thurman, vice president for business development at Fairfax-based Guest Services Inc., a food-service company.
County officials lamented that statistics show a hairdresser in Virginia must undergo 1,500 hours of training, while a teacher or teacher's aide in a child care center requires eight hours of annual training.
About 85,000 children in Fairfax receive some form of child care, ranging from day-care centers to nannies, according to Judith M. Rosen, director of the county's Office for Children.
"We want more child care centers to develop a system whereby they really know how to educate children," Rosen said. "We need to develop a strategic plan for the early childhood. We need to work with the School Board. We need to know what they need" to be ready for kindergarten.
Fairfax Futures, which will be run out of the Office for Children, has received a $60,000 grant from the Freddie Mac Foundation. Rosen said she hopes to use the money to study the county's child care facilities and the needs of its children. With that information, she said, officials could develop a plan to improve education in the earliest years of a child's life.
"The end goal is to provide educational opportunities at the earliest age possible," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D). "More early learning centers need to make sure their kids are prepared for formal schooling."
The 12-member board of Fairfax Futures includes former Board of Supervisors chairman Katherine K. Hanley, former School Board chairman Mary Ann Lecos and representatives of companies such as Wachovia Corp. and Training Solutions Inc.
Thurman, who also has a seat on the board, cited her constant struggle to keep work-family balance as one that attracted her to Fairfax Futures. At the meeting last Thursday, for example, she received an urgent phone call: Her sixth-grade son had pink eye and needed someone to pick him up from the nurse's office.
"That's the story of all working mothers," she said. "As a working mom, what do you do?"