Thursday, April 3, 2003

It's about money

Uh, oh - Su Sanders is calling


Su Sanders has been on my voicemail. I have been shamefully slow to call her back. I know it's about money, and I just don't know what to say. Things are tough all over. State budgets are being cut by billions of dollars. Billions.

And Su wants to talk about 20 cents.

She is one of those people with a mission, the mission being children at St. Paul's Child Care Center in Newport. Su's job is director of the agency. She does her job. And then some. A tiny woman whose bearing disputes her actual size, Su fills a room. Talking a mile a minute, she darts through the old red brick building, changing a diaper, helping a young mother refill a bottle. She carefully pours out the Mountain Dew, replacing it with milk.

"Maybe nobody ever told her this is bad for babies," Su says. More than three-quarters of the parents are single mothers. About a fifth are teen-agers, some as young as 14.

Crushing poverty

Child care is the bare minimum. Su's goal for her charges - aged 6 weeks to 6 years - is "connecting those little neurons, getting the kids ready for school. Breaking the cycle, giving them the chance not to become their parents." Crushing poverty is the rule rather than the exception at St. Paul's, which is subsidized by the state.

If a parent makes less than $8 an hour, they qualify for some assistance. The legislature is considering a proposal to lower that to $7.80.

A year ago, I watched a little girl as she arrived at St. Paul's. Her father knelt, running a brush gently through her blond hair one last time before he left for work. She was 3 years old then, healing from a series of surgeries. When she was an infant, her mentally ill mother gave her a battery to play with. The acid ate through the baby's esophagus.

I wondered what happened to her.

Good things, I am told. Her father has sole custody now, saying he learned a lot about how to care for his little girl from the staff at St. Paul's. Her injuries have healed. She knows her numbers and the alphabet. She smiles. These are very big things.

'We're desperate'

"One of our success stories," Su says. You can be the author of one of those stories if you have clout, money, time or ideas call Su at (859) 581-3390. "We're desperate."

You wouldn't think 20 cents would make that much difference. But it means 10,000 children would no longer qualify for assistance because their parents are making a whopping $16,640 per year. Parents who can't afford day care while they're working for their $8 an hour leave their children with somebody. Somebody not Su Sanders with her degree in early childhood education, with her fierce determination to "connect those little neurons," with her dedication to their health and safety. Maybe an older sibling. Maybe a boyfriend. Maybe a neighbor.

The weekly fee at St. Paul's for a toddler is $127, some of which is paid by parents. Incarceration at a state facility costs more than twice that, and the state pays the whole tab. Of course, not every neglected or abused kid winds up in jail. But surely we can notice that they might wind up unhappy.

But it's about money, and Su is hoping that the people who dole it out will decide it might be cheaper in the long run to build better kids than to try to fix ruined adults.

E-mail or call 768-8393.

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