In the Texas Panhandle, a nonprofit is fighting rural child care deserts

Mariza Licerio, director of Happy Tribe Academy, puts one of her daycare kids in a seat to eat lunch Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, in Friona. (Mark Rogers For The Texas Tribune, Mark Rogers For The Texas Tribune)

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FRIONA — The economy in this Panhandle town of about 4,100 people has long rested on the backs of its working-class residents, who for decades have dutifully filled the ranks at meatpacking facilities, school buildings and other vital businesses.

But city officials noticed a shift after the COVID-19 pandemic. Fewer residents were interested in taking in-person jobs at companies in the town. One key reason: It was too difficult and costly to find child care.

For about as long as anyone can remember, Parmer County, where Friona resides southwest of Amarillo, didn’t have a single day care center. Parents were largely paying the price through long morning commutes to far-flung child care providers in the region. According to the National Database of Childcare Prices, the cost of child care in Texas can range from $6,000 to nearly $11,000 annually.

The rise of remote jobs and telework during the pandemic made day-to-day life a little bit easier. Afterward, many Friona residents, 73% of whom are Hispanic, seemed reluctant to take jobs at the business that kept the town running. And for some parents, the high cost of child care forced them to make difficult decisions about whether they could continue living or working there at all.

“We determined the problem is not that people didn’t want to work, it’s that they don’t have the means to afford child care,” said Leander Davila, Friona’s city manager.

From mental health treatment to primary care doctors, the Panhandle has starved for critical resources that are largely out of reach for people in the far corner of the state. When it comes to lacking child care within driving distance, however, the problem is not exclusive to the Panhandle. Data from the Center of American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute, shows 63% of rural families in the Lone Star state live in a child care desert.

Happy Tribe Academy daycare is seen Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024 in Friona.

Happy Tribe Academy day care is seen Wednesday in Friona. Credit: Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune

Maureen Coffey, an early childhood policy analyst for CAP, said day care centers often close in rural communities because low enrollment prevents them from bringing in enough revenue to operate. And with the rising cost of child care, Coffey said families reach an inevitable breaking point where one parent drops out of the labor force to take care of the children.

“These are issues that are entrenched and systemic and underlie the entire child care sector,” Coffey said. “So we have to address the root sources of our issues in child care if we want the situation to stabilize and improve.”

Coffey added, “By taking families out of the workforce, we’re hurting businesses in the Texas Panhandle.”

In Friona, though, parental relief — and a potential economic solution for the city — arrived after the Amarillo Area Foundation provided a grant for more than $114,000 to the City of Friona to open a day care center in town. The foundation, which is a nonprofit that focuses on addressing health and economic challenges in the Panhandle, worked with the city on its mission. In November, the Happy Tribe Academy opened.

“I’ve noticed the need for years here, especially with the Cargill plant and other employers in Friona and surrounding areas,” said Mariza Licerio, the center’s director.

The center is located in the town’s former Girl Scout building. Some renovations were needed — including a $16,000 roof. They received an additional $45,000 from the foundation through a fund gifted by Cargill, the beef processing facility, for that and other work.

The academy has started small, something Licerio is grateful for. She and her small crew take care of 11 children, three of whom are there part-time. Their curriculum consists of the basics — colors, shapes, numbers — as well as time for lunch and crafts. They are accepting children as young as six weeks old through school age.

There is still room to grow, though, as the building is large enough to house up to 42 children. Licerio said six more people reached out to her since the start of the year, which makes her excited for the future. Some aren’t even Friona residents — they’re from nearby towns — which proves to Licerio how needed child care is in the region.

Mariza Licerio, Director of Happy Tribe Academy daycare, poses for a photo in one of her classrooms Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, in Friona.

Mariza Licerio, director of Happy Tribe Academy in Friona, poses for a photo in one of her classrooms. Credit: Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune

“There were faithful nannies and some babysitters, but not a day care,” said Licerio, who is fulfilling a lifelong dream by opening one in her hometown.

Davila said the day care will open the door for more opportunities in his hometown. Friona's business owners have become more diverse in recent years, and he hopes the day care will help continue that trend.

“We’ve been able to bridge that gap and bring people who already loved this community together,” Davila said. “In order to make change, it’s going to take some time, and we’re in it for the long haul.”

The Amarillo Area Foundation also awarded funds to Claude, 96 miles northeast of Friona, to address the same issue last year. Keralee Clay, senior vice president for the foundation, said their investment is to ensure families in the Panhandle have the support they need to continue working and sending their children to safe learning environments.

However, Clay said, it needs to be a multi-pronged effort that includes financial help from other communities and businesses.

“We know we cannot fund a child care center in every community and solve this problem,” Clay said. “We’d love to, but that’s not the systemic change we need. We need to help communities understand that this is affecting everyone.”

When it comes to solving such a large problem — about 51% of all people in the U.S. live in a child care desert — Clay said there will also need to be some kind of help from state lawmakers.

“There are some changes that can only come from Austin,” Clay said.

Last year, the Texas Legislature had an opportunity to approve a $2.3 billion proposal that would have funded child care providers. The proposal was left out of the final budget.

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