The parents are often panicked when they call the day-care center.

They are moms who need a second job to pay the light bill; dads whose shifts changed at a restaurant; students with a class that continues into the evening. And now, they need a child to be put to bed not by a relative, but a staffer.

“I usually have to convince them they aren’t being bad parents,” says Tameenah Adams, a 40-year-old with red dreadlocks who runs the 24-hour Happy Faces Learning Centers. “They are working to put food on the table, and we can help them until they become financially stable.”

Happy Faces, in the Brentwood area of Northeast Washington, might be playground zero in a snapshot of a still-languishing economy and the changing realities of the American workplace. Two years ago, five children needed “day care” past 6 p.m. on weekdays. Now there are often 25. Last week, an anxious parent called about needing regular care for a child until 2 a.m.

At 4 p.m. one recent day, staffers escorted little feet to a dining area for dinner, while men in steel-toe boots clomped out of the strip-mall storefront carrying their kids, who had arrived before sunrise. The place sounds like an amusement park and smells like applesauce.

Adriann Ball, one of the children in Happy Faces Learning Center evening care program, takes a nap. (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)

“Leaving your kids here is one of the hardest parts of being a single parent,” said Teresa Williams, 37. She cobbles together hotel clerk shifts and takes classes at Strayer University to provide for Jaylen, her 4-year-old son.

“But nowadays, you have to take the work when you can get it; you have to go to school,” Williams said. “This was the only place I could find that would take my son.”

Of the city’s 490 licensed child-care centers, only 30 offer late-night care, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education , which licenses early-childhood centers. Still, they fill “a tremendous need” for parents, said Larry Carr, who oversees licensing.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people working at least two part-time jobs has increased 14 percent since 2002. At 8 p.m. on any given weeknight, nearly one in five Americans is working. Almost 12 percent are working at midnight. By then, most parents have picked up their pajama-clad kids at Happy Faces.

As the sun descends, story time begins. Staffer Lajuan Lee, primed by 20-ounce cups of coffee, gives a dramatic reading of a children’s book co-written by Spike Lee.

“Please, baby, please, baby please!” Lee pleads, down on her knees. “Go to sleep, please, baby, please!” Some of the 20 kids, from 6 weeks to 6 years old, smile. Others just stare.

As a high school student picks up her daughter, she tells Adams she might drop out of school. Her guidance counselor told her she can’t graduate on time.

“Don’t do that,” Adams says. “Maybe you can still walk across the stage even if you graduate late. There are always ways to work something out.” Sometimes, Adams directs her focus as much to parents as she does to their children.

Their story is her own. Twenty-five years ago, Adams was 14 and pregnant. Later, she worked as a late-night cashier at McDonald’s to buy baby clothes.

Finding child care was so hard that her mother, Linda Bean, applied for a child-care center license and started watching over children of moms in the same situation. A decade ago, Happy Faces became an all-night operation. Last year, with 120 children and a staff of 40, it received nonprofit status.

A short walk away, upscale, mixed-use condominiums are sprouting, offering one-bedrooms at $1,830 a month.

But the need is still high. Ninety-five percent of Adams’s parents, most of them single parents and teen mothers, pay for child care mostly through a government subsidy, adding $3 to $9.50 a day from their own pockets, depending on their income. At the end of the month, the cabinets are short on their Gerber supply. Staffers often give parents food here and there to make sure kids don’t go hungry.

At 7:30, the kids play and draw. Nearly an hour later, they are led to a room with purple walls where Dora the Explorer blankets lay on cots and a CD of lullabies plays. The children begin to close their eyes.

At about 9, Andria Swanson, 22, smiles as she walks in to pick up her sleeping daughter, Kassidy. Swanson said she grew up in an atmosphere of alcohol and abuse. Now in her third semester at the University of the District of Columbia, she is majoring in early childhood education.

“I want to fight for my child to have a good life,” she said. “I changed my ways so I could make a life for her.”

By 10 p.m., only one staffer and one infant remain. Meriam Guiral started work after her day job as an administrative assistant. Her second job is to care for the children of parents with second jobs.

The sweet songs lull on, but baby Taylor is still smiling that smile as Guiral gently rocks her. She whispers to the infant, “Please, baby, go to sleep.”

Sometime before sunrise, the march of little feet will begin again.

If you have an idea for a story about the D.C. area at night, e-mail Robert Samuels at