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Child care center trying to help struggling, working parents

— When Shannon Chamberlin decided to come back to work after her baby girl was born, she had one vexing thing that every working parent of little kids has to consider.

How was she going to afford day care for her three kids, now ages 3, 4 and 4 months old.

She has no family members free to take care of them, and while she got on a waiting list for child care subsidy through the Early Learning Coalition of Florida’s Heartland Inc., she knew that wait could be long.

Then she heard of Lil Wizards Academy’s family assistance relief program through the mother of the day care’s owner, James Box.

For a subsidized weekly rate, Chamberlin could enroll her three kids at Lil Wizards until she started receiving the Early Learning Coalition subsidy.

At that point, she could continue with Lil Wizards or go to another provider the Early Learning Coalition partners with.

“It’s helped us a lot,” Chamberlin said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to work. “

“He has been very nice, very helpful,” she said of Box, who came up with the subsidy program to help parents who are on the coalition’s waiting list.

Formerly a service advisor with Alan Jay Automotive Network, Box bought the day care in downtown Sebring about three years ago. His kids were going to Lil Wizards and he took a leap of faith into a brand new venture.

“I got into this not knowing a thing about child care,” he grinned Tuesday. “I called it day care. It’s not. It’s child care.”

Eight months ago he took over the full-time running of the center, which has since expanded to include an after-school and Voluntary Prekindergarten program in a separate location.

The family relief program, a term he coined himself, was born after a mother came up to him and told him she could no longer afford paying child care.

He looked a little bit more into it and realized he needed to do something to help struggling parents, in an area where there are not a whole lot of well-paying jobs, he said, and where child care could take a big bite out of people’s income.

Now, 18 families get help through the family relief program and he can accommodate 10 to 12 more, he said. Parents pay $50 a week for a child. That includes meals and baby formula and baby food for infants and babies. Parents need to provide pay stubs for the last four weeks and an Early Learning Coalition waiting list documentation dated within the last 30 days.

Box’s business model is based on what he calls the new economy -- hinging more on volume and less on price.

His full-rate for an infant, with meals included, for instance, is $135 a week. At $50 an infant, he may be losing $85 a week, but he can spread out the loss from having expanded his center from 35 kids to almost 77, he explained. Plans are afoot to open a third location in Sun ‘n Lake, he said.

A Yandlee Candle fundraiser also helped him raise $5,000 to cover the difference.

And by trying to work with grateful parents, he’s not just helping them out, he’s preventing loss of kids through constant attrition, he said.

He told himself one day: “We got to figure out a way to make the company shine better.”

This is one of his solutions.

The Early Learning Coalition of Florida’s Heartland Inc.’s Executive Director Anne Bouhebent said it takes from six months to one year to get off the waiting list, based on how much they project to receive in state/federal funds and community partnership grants, such as through United Way of Central Florida and Glades Electric Co. in Highlands County.

Those who are on the waiting list meet the income criteria, are eligible for school readiness assistance and have a child care need, she said.

The Heartland chapter serves four counties. In Highlands County, it provides child care help to 529 children from birth to 13 years and has 350 children on the waiting list. Of these, 290 are not school age yet.

She has heard of other child care centers trying to help out parents, either through a barter program or a church scholarship.

She applauded Lil Wizards for the assistance it is providing.

“It’s very nice he is offering that,” she said.