Campus day-care center gets federal subsidy

If someone told you that taking care of the needs of one infant for one month for one-half of each day costs $1,200, you might wonder how a family could possibly make ends meet.

That's the dilemma many employees and students at Carolina and UNC Hospitals face when trying to tend simultaneously to their kids' welfare and their jobs or educations.

Orange County has the highest cost of childcare in North Carolina, so the problem of finding quality childcare at an affordable price in or near campus takes some creative effort.

Carolina has an on-site, state-of-the-art child-care facility called Victory Village Day Care Center that operates at full capacity in a year-old building behind the Friday Center. And a $148,000 grant ($37,000 per year over the next four years) awarded this month by the U.S. Department of Education will help subsidize childcare for some 30-40 children coming from families with a parent/student at the University.

The grant award was made possible by legislation co-authored by U.S. Rep. David Price (D-4th District). Carolina is one of 87 schools in the country and the only one in North Carolina to receive the federal funds.

Money entirely for tuition subsidies

Victory Village, Childcare Services Association in Chapel Hill and Carolina all collaborated in the effort to win this award.

"We wrote our grant totally to be subsidy money," said Leigh Zaleon, director of Victory Village. "Parents who qualify may use their subsidy at another high quality child-care facility if the University's day-care center doesn't have an opening.

"We're lucky. Many universities don't even have a building for on-campus childcare and will use the money as seed money to build a facility. We've had childcare on campus since 1952, originally in a refurbished army barracks, and our new facility fills so many of our needs that all the money will help with tuition, starting with those who are most in need."

A big break for parents

Currently, the center serves about 120 children aged 6 weeks to 5 years. Fees are assigned based on parent income and household size and, for those in need, can range from $30/month to $300/month. That compares to regular fees ranging from $650/month to $940/month.

The subsidized rates are a big break for parents such as Veronica and Frank Gianci, whose son attends the center while mom works and dad goes to school. Frank is a second-year graduate student at Kenan-Flagler Business School, and Veronica works as an administrative assistant at Victory Village. They moved here from New York City and were lucky enough to find a spot for their son, Michael, just as the center was expanding to its new building.

"The first month we arrived we paid $715/month in childcare. With what I make, we barely cleared $200 a month, so I was basically working for benefits," Veronica said. "With subsidies, we now pay $250/month and can buy groceries and pay rent."

With another child on the way, the Gianci family is grateful for the assistance.

"It really helps Frank focus on his studies and know that Michael is getting quality care," she said. "He has faith in the University system, we're all on campus, it's close and we're not dealing with a private entity that we have to worry about."

Kids love it, too

There's nothing worse than not knowing your child is safe, secure and learning, so the comfort of having a child at Victory Village puts many a mind at ease.

"Our largest mission is to make sure parents can do what they have to do to improve their lives and earn a living," Zaleon said.

But it doesn't take more than a quick walk around this colorful, cheery, sun-lit facility to see that the kids are having fun, too.

Eleven classrooms are all named for birds, and the kids take pride in being a part of the pelican, owl, sparrow, robin, toucan, penguin, puffin or other nest. A group of tykes headed out the door hand-in-hand for playtime with their teachers. One small child latched on to Associate Director Phoebe Polk, whom he seemed to consider a mom away from home.

Field trips enable the kids to visit locations on campus as well as places such as the fire station, ice cream shops and plays at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro. To celebrate the Chinese New Year last year, some children were treated to a special lunch at a Chinese restaurant.

Enrichment programs such as the popular "Rags to Riches" are brought to the center several times a year. Opportunities to take tumbling, music or computer lessons also are available.

Professional staff wins award

The facility goes far beyond baby-sitting and has a well-defined curriculum for each age group that guides the children from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Even in the infant room, babies are cuddled and spoken to throughout each day to help their language skills emerge.

"We view our jobs as professions," Zaleon said. "We plan all our activities so the children learn through experience. And we also work in the community on various projects to help others and to help us be seen as professionals."

When the staff is out for professional training or for community service, AmeriCorps ACT (Action for Children Today) members fill in to provide quality and consistent care. They also help create literacy projects and resources for the center, and they made a reading library at the site.

This fall, Victory Village received a N.C. Early Childhood Professional Development Award for its exemplary professional development plan for staff members. The National Academy of Early Childhood Programs accredits the program. For additional information or to put your child's name on a list for future openings at Victory Village, call Zaleon at 2-2662.

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