Bridging the barriers of a broken system: Bridges Transitional Childcare

The cost of childcare

In the past three years since the COVID-19 pandemic, popular news sources and reports have attempted to analyze the United States’ childcare problem, particularly focusing on the high costs to parents and the expiration of federal support programs and other subsidies administered during COVID-19. Certainly, such programs allowed many childcare centers to stay afloat during COVID-19. Still, as one article discussed, these programs served as a bandage that scarcely covered the already existing large wound that is the broken childcare system in the U.S.  Indeed, the Economic Policy Institute estimates the average annual cost of infant care in Indiana to be $12,612. Other reports, such as a 2023 report from Child Care Aware of America, estimated costs as high as $13,736 for infants and $11,965 for toddlers in Indiana center-based childcare. These numbers also represent the cost for just one child annually.

For comparison, the Economic Policy Institute notes if someone were a minimum wage worker in Indiana, they would have to spend roughly 83.6% of their yearly earnings on childcare. Even a median family with children would still spend roughly 22.0% of their yearly earnings on childcare. These comparisons are alarming. The average childcare worker may not be able to afford the childcare services they provide for their own children. However, what can get easily lost in conversations about cost is what these services and programs look like on the ground and in the classroom. That is why we sent two interviewers from the Indianapolis Liberator down to Evansville, Indiana to speak with Vanessa Quarles at Bridges Transitional Preschool & Childcare to gain an inside look at the labor behind the costs and the impact of such services in our communities.

Childcare is not just babysitting

When Vanessa and George Quarles founded Bridges eight years ago, in 2016, it was born out of their own experiences as parents of four children who were unable to find quality childcare.  Reflecting on these experiences, Vanessa stated “Those people [childcare workers] that are taking our money every day for our children are not just babysitting, and they’re actually helping and nurturing our kids and making sure that they grow.” She went on to note that, especially increasing during and after the pandemic, she was seeing significant delays in speech in children she worked with as well as children who had fewer opportunities for interaction with peers and a “lot of gaps in the social and emotional developmental area.” 

It was in noticing these gaps and needs that George and Vanessa decided to found Bridges, given the “need not only for childcare but for quality childcare, to make sure the children are meeting their developmental milestones.” This begs the question of what this quality childcare looks like day to day and how it goes beyond what some may think of as just simply babysitting.

The labor behind the cost 

The day begins early at Bridges for Vanessa and her employees who arrive as early as 6:00 AM and open at 6:30 AM. Everyone arrives by 8:00 AM. During this meet and greet time, employees are busy assisting the kids in “navigating through all of their big emotions, helping them transition from leaving mommy and daddy smoothly.” From there the mornings are a flurry of changing diapers, serving breakfast, assisting with gross motor development through recess time outside, and finally participating in circle time, which Vanessa describes as the time that all employees are “supposed to be connecting, not correcting” in their interactions with the kids. This means this is not a time where you will hear phrases like “Sit down, Stand up, Turn around, Don’t do that.” Rather, teachers are following their lesson-planned activities with anything from singing and dancing to group reading sessions while fostering the social and emotional development of the children.

Vanessa emphasizes focus on social and emotional development as a key part of preparing children who are getting closer and closer to kindergarten readiness. “I believe you cannot teach a child anything academic if they cannot regulate their emotions,” Vanessa said. This is difficult work woven into every interaction whether that includes “naming those emotions, coping with those big emotions, and working through problems with peers” and more. So, just as much as there is physical and mental labor involved in planning, setting up, and leading the kids through their daily activities, there is also emotional labor where teachers scaffold children’s development of building blocks for future conflict resolution, social interaction, and emotional regulation skills.

The day continues with nap time…for the children. For the teachers, the work continues, as they promptly complete their lesson plans for future weeks. The rest of the day until pickups usually includes another afternoon recess with plenty of time for more physical exercise and play along with time for sensory play, activities targeting fine motor skill development, and activities targeting daily living skills from brushing teeth to tying shoes and more. All of these and more activities are bound together with careful scheduling and lesson planning which follows curricula. This gives structure to both teachers and children, preparing them for the consistent routines they will need for future school. The curriculum extends to even the youngest kids in Bridges, as parent Xavia Burton points out:“The infants don’t just lay there, the infants even have a good morning song and affirmations and flashcards… She (Vanessa) understands the importance of introducing the infants even to words every day.”

Even after pickup time, one can see that the holistic programming Bridges’ provides is still at play given that parents have custom-made take-home binders with short daily activities to engage in with their children. These facilitate their development, especially in reading, math, and emotion regulation among other areas. In speaking about partnering with parents, Vanessa says that “children need to see teamwork, they need to see what’s important to my teacher is important to my parent, and then vice versa.”

In short, Vanessa and the employees of Bridges truly wear many hats in the labor they engage in daily. Vanessa sums it up: “For us, what are we doing? Wiping noses, changing diapers, plunging toilets, fixing food, kissing boo-boos, being the mediator, the referee, singing songs, entertaining,” all while trying to monitor and further the healthy development of every child. How does all this work get done? Well, Vanessa emphasized in our interview that “It’s really just a team effort” and said, “I believe that no one childcare worker is a miracle worker.” 

Even the parents emphasize how much work Vanessa and her team collectively put into the quality care of each child. Erin Shaw, a long-time parent of Bridges, recounts, “She (Vanessa) just has a caring heart for kids… You can tell she is really in it for the children and nothing else.” Another parent, Payton Cox  “So we decided to stay with bridges, because we just trusted them. I mean, Vanessa is very authentic and genuine and open. She had curriculum planned for when he was older. At that time, he was the only infant he had one to one care. I mean, we got constant pictures and video like they just treated our son like he was one of their kids.”

The barriers bridges faces

During the past year, it has not all been smooth sailing for Bridges. They have had to contend with a sort of double bind that many childcare facilities are forced into in the U.S.: securing sufficient financial support to keep providing quality care when many of the usual options businesses have (charging more for their services and cutting costs) would lead to negative consequences for Bridges’ vision. As noted in the reports cited earlier, many families are struggling to cover the high costs of childcare as is, and raising prices could mean parents have to pull their children out of Bridges. On the other hand, cutting costs is not a simple solution either, as Vanessa stated when it comes to childcare “if you cut costs, you cut quality. So it’s not fair to our tiny humans.” Vanessa went on to say that right now if they were to cut costs that could mean “sending somebody off the clock” which not only would be a loss of work for the employee but also negatively affect the teacher-to-child ratios of classrooms that are carefully maintained to ensure a standard level of care and attention to each child in a classroom.

As a result, Vanessa noted much of her time is spent pursuing potential grant applications to help secure funding. Securing grants is a difficult and long process. Vanessa shared that within a year of moving into their current location, she has “seen at least six other centers my size or larger close.” Vanessa highlighted that this means often parents with low incomes who may rely on Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) vouchers are caught in a vicious cycle where “those parents have a voucher, but nobody’s accepting vouchers. So now the parents can’t work because nobody’s accepting this voucher, and now the workforce is down. And so it’s just a big, big circle.”

Bridges’ vision for the future

However, despite all of these challenges, Bridges continues to serve the roughly 35 children currently enrolled and its owners remains committed to their vision and thankful for having weathered these trials and made it to their current capacity. 

Bridges’ vision for the future reaches further still. Vanessa told us they would someday hope to found a “family community center” and offer “childcare to parents who have the non-traditional work schedules because those are the kids who really need routine.” Vanessa went on to identify the reason behind her and George’s pursuit of this vision simply saying “We got to invest in our kids, our future, because they’re going to keep running the world. You know?”

So, Bridges’ doors remain open as they work to provide a crucial service within Evansville. For any readers who wish to help they have shared their Facebook page where you can follow and assist by sharing their advertising efforts both in enrolling children and hiring staff. Below are also sites for those who wish to send donations to help financially support Bridges. Lastly, Vanessa asks that readers keep Bridges and other child care centers in similar situations in their prayers and thoughts and be assured that they will not give up their work. Wherever their future takes them and whatever struggles they face, the Bridges story will continue.

Donation sites: