Maribel Navarrete, mother of four, had a job at a radio station, but when the station closed down and her babysitter also moved on, Navarrette was faced with a hard choice.

            If she looked for another job she'd have to find child care, but if she stayed at home with her children, she feared her family wouldn't be able to make its mortgage and credit card payments.

            The answer for Navarette was a project that is making child care a business opportunity for women. Navarrete now watches her children in a day care business she runs out of her home.

             With her business turning 1 year old this month, Navarrete employs a full-time assistant and makes twice what she used to at the radio station. She's the president of a fledgling association of child care providers, and she has achieved something she never dreamed would be possible -- owning her own business.

            Community organizations across the country working to solve problems in child care and employment problems see the day care field as a promising job opportunity for women looking for both work and child care.

            On Chicago's Northwest Side, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association is recruiting and training women like Navarrete on the ins and outs of opening a home day care business. Thirty-four women have graduated from the organization's six-week, 29-hour Incubator Without Walls course, which covers everything from childhood development to the state licensing process to how to run a business.

            Anîbal Miranda, project coordinator of the Incubator Without Walls project for the neighborhood association, said the association collaborates with a local day care advocacy group and an economic development organization to provide training.

            Participants, most of whom were not previously in the workforce, receive assistance in writing a business plan and applying for a loan, and a local bank has agreed to loan up to $3,000 in start-up money to every program graduate, regardless of income or credit history. Graduates of the training have started a child care providers association as a way of sharing support and information.

            The idea of converting child care from a problem to a business prospect has taken off in recent years, but it's by no means new.

            In Brooklyn, N. Y., the Cypress Hills Child Care Corp., a subsidiary of a local nonprofit development corporation, has helped recruit and train 40 women to become home-based child care providers since 1994 through its Family Daycare Network.

            In Philadelphia in the late 1980s, three women started a worker-owned daycare center that offered women the ability to enroll their children at the center where they worked. Childspace Management Group now employs 41 women at two sites and is planning to hire 10 more when it opens a third site this fall. Projects modeled after Childspace are under way in Denver and in Richmond, Calif.

            About 20 percent of the workers have their own children enrolled at Childspace. Since its inception the group has focused on providing quality jobs; they offer higher wages than the industry average and are supportive of workers who need time off to deal with family problems or to go back to school.

"In our mind the quality of the job is linked directly with the quality of the care," says Wendy Epstein, executive director of Childspace Cooperative Development, Inc., a nonprofit arm of the Childspace Management Group. "Yet, because we cater to low- and moderate-income families, we can’t offer higher wages by relying on revenue alone."

            One of the key problems in achieving quality care is high employee turn-over. Childspace in Philadelphia has an annual average employee turnover rate of about 15 to 20 percent, compared with a national average of 40 to 60 percent, according to Epstein. “Because our ability to offer high wages is limited, what Childspace has tried to do is to restructure the job into a worker cooperative, and to create a work culture that supports participation in decision-making and leadership,” she said.

            To make it feasible to offer better wages, the group also seeks foundation funding and negotiates with partner organizations for free rent. The newest Childspace center, slated to open this September in West Philadelphia, will provide on-site day care for homeless families in a rent-free space provided by the nonprofit group HEALTH-Philadelphia.

            Job quality has been a focus of the Chicago program as well, as emphasis is placed on women being business owners and child care providers, not low-paid babysitters.

            With low unemployment rates and more people entering the job market due to welfare reform, demand for quality day care is higher than ever. According to a study done by the Government Accounting Office, 30,000 new child care spaces will be needed in Chicago alone to meet the increased demand brought on by welfare reform.

            That demand has meant a booming business for new providers. "I was not even licensed and I had a waiting list," says Navarrete. "I had to take my sign down because I couldn't handle all the phone calls."

            Encouraging women to start their own businesses has not come without challenges. So far in Chicago just two of the 34 women who have gone through the training are licensed and operating. Miranda says that's due to the long time it takes the state to complete the licensing process, which involves site visits, interviews and background checks on all family members. Another obstacle has been that most women who have gone through the training do not own their own homes and need to get permission from their landlord before they are able to open their businesses.

            But the training has also brought unexpected rewards, including increased self-confidence and widened horizons for the women involved. Navarrete's new career inspired her to go back to school; she's currently working on an associate's degree in child development and early childhood education and says she's headed for a bachelor's, a master's and then a Ph.D.

            "I feel like I can accomplish anything now," she says.

BERKSHIRE PUBLISHING GROUP: The American News Service (ANS), founded by Frances Moore Lappé and Paul Martin DuBois in 1995, was a project of the Center for Living Democracy. The content of these articles, which ranges from environmental action to food pantries, remains extremely relevant. Because these articles can be of great value to researchers who are studying a wide range of community issues, Berkshire Publishing, with the kind permission of Frances Moore Lappé, is also making the full archives available online, free of charge.