The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

During a year that brought a second set of twins and cancer, a couple found unexpected help in a child-care center

John O’Mahony, left, and Yaroslav Koporulin, with their two sets of twins at the CentroNía child-care center in Columbia Heights. (Michael A. McCoy for The Washington Post)

If life were gentler, the call from Yaroslav Koporulin’s doctor would have come another day.

But it came on the day his twin sons were born.

Earlier that week, his doctor had found a mass in his lungs and decided to do a biopsy. Yaroslav and his spouse, John O’Mahony, had hoped the test results would show the growth was benign, that it would confirm what doctors initially suspected, that he just had a cough and pneumonia. Then the call came, and suddenly a time that should have been spent celebrating two new lives was also spent grappling with two new words: lung cancer.

“That was a hard time of smiling and crying, kind of at the same time,” John recalls. “You’re so happy that you just had two boys, but your partner for life just got lung cancer.”

A few months before the arrival of their sons, the couple was featured in the Washington Blade because their 2-year-old twin girls were about to become big sisters and the men were about to occupy a unique place. The article describes the significance of the boys’ birth in this way: “Koporulin and O’Mahony’s status will also change from simply parents to the first known gay couple in the U.S. to have two sets of twins via surrogacy.”

The article makes no mention of lung cancer. It hadn’t yet seemed a possibility.

The swiftness with which life can change, in which happiness can slam into heartbreak, can leave even the most stable of families scrambling to find new footing. But for most people, that scramble doesn’t come while they’re also taking care of four children in diapers.

Even if you have one child and live in the Washington region, you know that finding quality child care during those years between infancy and kindergarten is not an easy task. It can be frustrating at best and futile at worst. It requires research and waitlists and prayers if you’re the praying type.

But for all that has shifted in Yaroslav’s and John’s lives since January 2019, when they received that diagnosis, they say that the one reassuring constant has been the child care they have received through CentroNía. The men credit the organization, which runs the Columbia Heights child-care center that all four siblings attend, with helping their children, and them, in ways that go beyond snack time and art projects.

“It’s such a warm international community,” Yaroslav says. “It feels like a family.”

“I don’t know what we would do without CentroNía,” John says. “It’s a special place.”

He recalls walking into the office of a staff member several months ago to explain why Yaroslav was losing weight. The chemotherapy and radiation have stripped him of about 30 pounds.

“They make you feel comfortable and not scared of saying something,” John says. “Having them know that things were going to be a little bit harder for us felt a little bit better for me.”

At the beginning of the year, I wrote a column committing to “explore ways we can help propel children who have the fewest resources toward success.”

That goal led me to look closer at CentroNía.

If you had to pick a 2020 goal in the time it took a traffic light to turn green, what would yours be?

About 90 percent of the children the organization serves are from low-income families. Many have parents who are first- or second-generation immigrants, and most of those parents don’t speak English at home. The majority speak Spanish, and a third speak Amharic.

And yet, the high quality of care the organization offers at its dual-language child-care centers in the District and Maryland draws parents who can afford to pay full tuition and who are so eager for a spot, they get on wait lists before their children are even conceived.

The organization serves about 650 children. Another 1,640 sit on the D.C. wait list, and 1,094 crowd the Maryland wait list.

“People walk in off the street saying, ‘Do you have anything available?’ ” CentroNía President Myrna Peralta says. The organization is working to open a new site in Montgomery County, but it will take a year or two to get the building ready. “People are already asking, ‘Can we be on the wait list?’ We will be full the day we open.”

Walk through the Columbia Heights center, and it’s easy to see why parents would want their children in the program. In the classrooms, brightly decorated walls are adorned with messages in English and Spanish. “Reading is fun” next to “Leer es divertido.” On the roof is a playground, complete with slides and miniature basketball hoops. And in the kitchen, the staff works to make enough healthful food to provide three meals a day to the children in the building and at other centers.

But what really stands out is how racial and ethnic differences aren’t presented through a colorblind lens. They are showcased and embraced. In one class, children’s pictures appear next to flags that showcase their heritage. On the door of another classroom hangs this note: “There are teachers from Puerto Rico in this classroom. Please excuse us if you see us on our phones. Our families are facing constant earthquakes right now.”

The CentroNía staff represents 25 countries, Peralta says. And the organization, which offers Child Development Associate training, recently became the first in the country to have a class complete that training and the exam in Amharic.

Peralta says the main challenge for CentroNía — and any early-childhood education program that aims to provide high-level services to low-income residents — is pulling in enough funding to make up for what government subsidies don’t cover. She points to a gap of about $4,000 per child each year. There is also the issue of finding affordable real estate to expand services, because the needs in the region for slots clearly outnumber the availability of them.

If people are signing up before they’ve even squinted at a sonogram, you have to wonder what happens to those who don’t get off the wait list — or who don’t even know how to get on it.

One tutor was shot. Others avoid the windows. Yet this after-school program is not only staying but is also hiring.

One child ended up at the Columbia Heights center after a staff member saw a man crying on the Metro.

She approached him and found out that he was a single father who spoke only Spanish and was worried because he didn’t know how to get help for his child who had a disability.

The staff helped him obtain services, sign up for the wait list and eventually enroll his child.

They also recently helped a young mother who was homeless when she came to them.

When John and Yaroslav signed up their daughters, Claire and Violet, for CentroNía about three years ago, the couple were able to pay the full tuition. They ran two bed-and-breakfasts on U Street for many years, and it was a lucrative business. But it required working 80 hours some weeks, so when they decided to start a family, they agreed to give it up.

They both found other jobs. Then the cancer diagnosis came and brought with it unexpected medical bills and the need for flexible jobs. John, who is 51 and has a bachelor’s degree in international relations, now works for a dog-walking company. Yaroslav, who is 48 and an artist, is an adjunct professor at American University, where he graduated with a master’s degree in art. Until recently, he also held a job at Trader Joe’s, working even as he went through chemo and radiation therapy.

John says when he realized they could no longer afford to pay full tuition for their daughters and their sons, Evan and Damian, he assumed he would have to pull all four out of the program.

“I came into the office one day when I thought I had to give it all up because we didn’t know how to pay anymore,” he says. A staff member, he says, then explained to him that he could qualify for a subsidy that would allow the children to remain enrolled. “We didn’t know you could actually get some help for a little while.”

With all the things the family has to worry about, John says, it helps that child care isn’t one of them.

After Yaroslav’s last round of chemotherapy, the couple says, they tried three times to get their D.C. Medicaid provider to pay for a PET scan to find out whether the cancer was spreading. Each time, they say, they were denied. Recently, after other tests, they found that the cancer had spread; Yaroslav will need to undergo a second round of chemo.

“The hardest thing for me is that I might not have my partner in a year or two and that I have to stay healthy,” John says. The two have been together for more than 20 years. “The hard thing for me is, who do you have after the person you’ve been with for a long time is not there anymore?”

Yaroslav says sometimes he has moments when he thinks, “I may not see my children grow, or they may not even remember me.”

“But, hopefully I make it long enough,” he says. “Hopefully I beat this thing. Which is still a possibility.”

As for their children, the couple tell them only that “Papa is sick.”

They are too young to understand much more than that. The girls are now 3, and on Jan. 28, the boys will turn 1, marking a year since they — and that phone call — arrived.

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

A teen with autism got new shoes, D.C. kids saw wishes granted and a man gave his mom in death what he couldn’t in life — because of you

They call themselves ‘fat cyclists’ — and they want to get more people, of all sizes, on bikes

Claire’s Journey: Their 8-month-old daughter was admitted to the hospital for a common virus. Then they discovered her brain was ‘shrinking.’