It was his first day of school and J.J. Vasquez wanted to look his best.
The 3-year-old looked both like a scholar and an athlete ready for a day’s activities at the new early childhood day care center housed in the Joseph Montoya state building. He sported natty white sneakers, a purple-and-black T-shirt and short pants, and had his hair freshly groomed and parted.
The name “Vasquez” was imprinted on the back of his T-shirt, too.
“He picked everything out,” said the boy’s mother, Chantel Larrañaga, as her son picked up books to read, played with miniature cooking set utensils and engaged with anybody or anything within range. “I’m so proud of him. He was so excited to be out of the house and enjoying other company.”
Vasquez was one of about 15 history-making kids in a new program that provides day care services for state employees.
It may be a small step in providing such services to New Mexicans — a recent Household Pulse Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau said more than 33 percent of New Mexico families could not access child care — but for parents like Larrañaga, the opportunity the program provides offers a sense of relief that allows her to concentrate on her job.
“This is such a benefit,” said Larrañaga, who works for the Public Employee Retirement Association of New Mexico. “It makes parents feel comfortable and get an opportunity to get services that can be hard to access.”
Plus, she said, coming out of the hemmed-in-days of home learning brought on by the pandemic, the new center gives her son and his peers — who range in age from 2 to 5 years old — a chance to learn social skills and the educational basics.
“It’s a whole new ballgame,” she said.
As employees in all sectors move back to the office, child care services can keep parents employed and ensure they do not have to cut their hours or pay, in the form of unpaid leave, to stay home to tend to their young kids, said Amber Wallin,, deputy director of the nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children.
“Certainly during the pandemic we saw what a lack of access to child care can do to families and workers and to the workforce and economy,” said Wallin.
She said without reliable access to child care programs, many parents — mothers in particular — ended up dropping out of the workforce to care for their kids at home. Child care is “one of the keys to supporting the workforce and economic recovery,” she said.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who attended Monday’s grand opening and cut the ribbon with the help of J.J. and two other children, said it remains “tough” for many parents to find affordable day care facilities for their children.
“We can do much more as a government to make access [to those facilities] easier,” she said. She said more centers could be placed at senior care centers, large private businesses and other state facilities.
The Montoya Building facility, operated by the private Little Explorers Child Development Center of Rio Rancho, is currently serving 44 children. Eight younger infants are at the state Tourism Department building on the Old Santa Fe Trail.
The care is not free for those state employees. Eligible state workers pay $224 a week for services at the Montoya building, said Micah McCoy, spokesman for the Early Childhood Education & Care Department. He said financial aid is available for some families who apply for it. To date, five families have been approved for that aid.
The eligibility level to be considered for the program is 400 percent of the federal poverty level, which comes out to $111,000 per year for a family of four, said Elizabeth Groginsky, secretary of the state Early Childhood Education & Care Department.
She said a survey of state employees made it clear those planning to return to the office to work were anxious about finding affordable child care facilities for their children. Of the 132 state employees who applied for the new child care service, 42 were chosen based on a lottery system, she said.
“It makes me feel good we’re taking care of our employees,” Groginsky said, adding she believes New Mexico is the only state offering this kind of service to its state employees.
Groginsky said the day care center will provide a host of education-related play activities, including a science table, for the children. Some studies say such day care centers, much like early childhood classroom opportunities, better prepare young children for K-12 schooling.
She and the governor said the state will continue to look for ways to fund similar programs in state facilities not being fully utilized.
The cost of renovating state offices into classrooms was about $234,000, coming from federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, McCoy said.
“We really need this around the state,” said Mariana Padilla, director of the state’s Children’s Cabinet, who at one point engaged J.J. Vasquez in a conversation about what components should be installed in the new child care center’s playground (he wants a bicycle the size of King Kong and some balls shaped and decorated like M&Ms to be included).
“It’s a thrill to be opening this for our families,” she said.