Thania Hernandez (far left), owner of Mis Primeros Pasos My First Steps day care in Ellsworth, surrounded by enrolled children. The day care offers bilingual and nature education. Credit: Courtesy of Mis Primeros Pasos My First Steps

Like many expecting parents, Thania Hernandez was put on a three-year waitlist by a day care.

But she wasn’t willing to wait. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, she decided to open her own day care in Ellsworth last October. Mis Primeros Pasos My First Steps day care, which provides bilingual and nature learning, can accommodate up to 20 children, aged 6 weeks to 5 years, for up to 10 hours a day.

“I realized there was a huge need for day care in Ellsworth,” said the mother of two. “There’s a huge need everywhere.”

Her daughter, now 3 years old, is enrolled at Mis Primeros Pasos. She still hasn’t heard back from the other day care.

Hernandez opened Mis Primeros Pasos with help from an educational program at Coastal Enterprises Inc., a nonprofit community development financial institution based in Brunswick.

Since launching in 2020, the nonprofit’s six-month Child Care Business Lab has helped entrepreneurs start 16 licensed day care businesses for 330 children. That also allowed 21 percent of the parents who enrolled their children at those day cares to start a new job.

“This program enables all parents in the household to be able to work if they feel comfortable that their children are in a place where they can grow, develop and thrive,” Cynthia Murphy, senior program director for workforce solutions at Coastal Enterprises Inc., said.

child care resources in Maine

The program addresses a major issue in workforce development in Maine. The shortages of care facilities and high costs have kept many parents out of the workforce and caring for their children instead. Child care can cost more than $15,000 a year for an infant and $13,000 for children ages 3 to 5, said Michelle Belanger, program coordinator at child care center Youth and Family Outreach in Portland.

More than 100 day cares in Maine went out of business early in the pandemic, but the numbers of facilities are rebounding. As of September 2022, there were 2,261 licensed child care providers in the state, up from 1,800 in April 2020, according to state data.

In 2019, Maine had a 10 percent gap in the number of children who potentially needed to be in child care — some 53,000 — compared with the supply of such care, according to the state. That gap, which kept some parents out of Maine’s workforce, has declined to 3,079 children that potentially need care that is not available now.

Murphy hopes the number of licensed day care businesses in Maine that the Child Care Business Lab helps create will double by the end of the year.

With its success so far, Coastal Enterprises Inc. on Monday announced funding to expand the lab model nationally. The $600,000 grant with a $1 million loan fund is from Lumina Foundation and Lumina Impact Ventures, both based in Indiana. The lab provides free, weekly classes for six months with day care and financial experts to help people start a day care business.

Thania Hernandez, owner of Mis Primeros Pasos My First Steps day care in Ellsworth.

Hernandez said the program helped a lot as she prepared to start her business. Classes included envisioning what kind of day care she wanted to have, what ages, what steps to take, finances and licensing. Coastal Enterprises Inc. connected her to a business advisor to help figure out finances for the business, which she said was very helpful. Another big help was learning about the myriad rules covering licensing.

“Our program takes away some of the risk with how to start a financially sustainable child care business,” Murphy said. “It gives child care providers confidence from the start, because they can see a three-year financial plan.”

The state also is providing incentives to add child care facilities and improve the pay for workers. Gov. Janet Mills’ Jobs and Recovery Plan has targeted $15 million to build up the state’s child care infrastructure, $4.3 million of which has been awarded to date, according to a Maine Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson.

To make the profession more attractive, Mills last fall announced grants to provide permanent $200 monthly salary supplements for child care workers. Hernandez has a staff of five making $15 to $18 per hour, depending on their experience. The extra money from the state makes a big difference.

“That money is very, very helpful for my staff,” Hernandez said.

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Lori Valigra

Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...