Baby-sitting co-ops - a workable option

Roger Bagnall joined the 560 Riverside Drive baby-sitting co-op in New York City 12 years ago and is still a satisfied member. ``It had everything,'' he explains. ``It was located right in the building with experienced parents as sitters. Saving money was secondary to the convenience.'' Most of their enrollees were (and are) faculty at Columbia University, as is Dr. Bagnall - a professor of history and classics.

``There was an immediate feeling of belonging,'' he continues, ``and we've also been able to meet a lot of people in other departments of the university we might never have met.''

For most busy parents, finding and paying for babysitters is a task they face alone. But many have found this collective approach to child care to be an excellent alternative. Like kids themselves, each cooperative is unique in personality, ranging from the most casual agreement between neighbors to the more complex arrangement, with memberships exceeding 50 families. Successful and enduring groups often have a waiting list of up to six months. Keeping an exchange toddling merrily along requires that each member participate at least once a month. Those unresponsive to the call drop out, making way for eager newcomers.

As for money, it's never used.

``As a single parent, it's been much easier for me to return baby-sitting than to pay,'' says Holly Pappas, a nursery school teacher and co-op member. ``And also, you know the sitters; they're reliable and you can always get someone when you need them.''

The 23 families at Ms. Pappas's 116th Street cooperative on New York's upper west side trade IBM computer cards. Each family receives three hours worth of cards when they join, and must return the same amount when they leave. (Other cooperatives use points or chips.) To gain points, you donate your time baby-sitting for others; in return, those extra points can then be traded to have someone watch your children. A rotating secretary pulls it all together, keeping member accounts up-to-date and receiving extra points for her labor.

The playground in Cambridge, Mass., centered among a complex of two high-rises and three smaller apartment buildings, is the focal point for the Westgate Baby-sitting Co-op. It's a busy paradise for children, who cover the sandbox, slides, and climbing gym like confetti. The afternoon hours between 4 and 6 p.m. usher in an extraordinary wave of activity. Mothers, and occasionally fathers, sit on benches cloistered in a sea of nationalities. Overseeing the perpetual motion, a sitter learns to answer questions while delivering a hug, steadying a baby, or bouncing a ball.

But according to Mary Carol Magill, one of 35 members of the 10-year-old Westgate exchange, the playground provides another valuable service. ``We stand around and talk while the kids play, and you see how someone supervises their children,'' she says.

Dawn Rehfeldt, a petite, soft-spoken woman, agrees, describing the negligence she observed in one couple (new in the exchange) toward their children. Also, the continuous fighting between the siblings did not pass unnoticed by other mothers. As a result, this same pair, although likeable, never gained the trust of the other adults and soon quit.

In most co-ops, candidates usually apply on the recommendation of members and receive a preliminary interview. It's common for the initiate to sit for others, accumulating a required amount of points before filling their own sitting needs. Clusters form within the exchanges between two or three households with children the same age who enjoy playing together. These parents trade among themselves, searching further only when their regulars are unavailable.

But according to Carol Rubin, founder of Warm Lines, a child-parent resource center in Newton, Mass., ``Although exchanges offer an excellent opportunity for extending the family, they seem less popular than they used to be. Women just don't have the same kind of time to devote to them.''

But this challenge is being skillfully answered by parents at the University of California, Berkeley. Melia Bosworth, parent support network coordinator for the university, explains that, ``The need here at Berkeley is primarily daytime care. Each week, parents donate two hours of their time and in exchange they receive two or three days of child-care services. Their input, combined with state and university financial aid, permits very high quality care.''

How can you find a co-op in your own area? Try local child-care resource centers and organizations devoted to family needs. Community newspapers may also have leads; or canvass the neighborhood, playground, or schools for like-minded people and start one of your own. Warm Lines publishes a guide for parents with tips on ways to create your own co-op. ``A Parent's Guide to Child Care and Baby-sitting'' is available for $8 from Warm Lines, 492 Waltham St., West Newton, MA 02165.

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