On the 14th floor of a Seventh Avenue office building in New York, change is in the air. Staff members at the Child Care Action Campaign are packing up papers and books, preparing to vacate the premises in a few weeks.
This is no ordinary move for the nonprofit organization, which stands at a curious crossroads. At the end of May, it will mark its 20th anniversary. But the occasion will be tinged with sadness, because at the same time it will close its doors permanently.
"It's been a really tough road financially," explains Faith Wohl, president, noting that many sources of funding have dried up or been significantly reduced in the wake of Sept. 11 and a faltering economy. Concerned that the organization would not be able to sustain itself financially while it charted a new direction, the board made what Ms. Wohl calls a "sad but sensible" decision to close down.
The group traces its beginning to 1983, when its founder, activist Elinor Guggenheimer, saw a "crisis" in child care and declared, "We've got to get the word out!" Initially, the organization stood as a lone voice, breaking what Wohl calls a "national silence" about the need for more and better day care and early education. Gradually, other groups appeared, creating a chorus of concerned voices.
Now there will be one less voice.
On the positive side, the group has succeeded in its mission of calling attention to child-care issues. As Wohl notes, "When Eddie Murphy makes a movie called 'Daddy Day Care,' you don't have to worry about awareness. People know the role child care plays in families' lives."
But awareness doesn't always translate into action, that all-important third word in the Child Care Action Campaign's name. Wohl would be among the first to say that the current child-care system remains far from perfect.
"The end of an era" is an overworked phrase. Organizations come and organizations go. But for those who follow child care, the loss of this particular advocacy group takes on broader significance. As child care shifts to a state and local issue, it is fading somewhat from national attention.
Wohl sees the situation symbolically, as more than just a small national nonprofit closing its doors. "It's coming at a time when we're closing some doors nationally for the improvement of child care and the benefit of kids."
Child care, she believes, does not have the priority it needs and deserves. She adds, "As you look at budgets and appropriation bills going through Congress, children are part of the segment of our society that is increasingly being defunded in federal terms."
Emily Kozyra, a staff member, even uses Mrs. Guggenheimer's word, crisis. "I would almost say we're approaching crisis levels again, in terms of federal and state budgets," she says. She points to some among the working poor who make too much money to qualify for subsidies but too little to pay for high-quality care.
Wohl, too, emphasizes the need to lift some of the financial burden from young families. "They can't afford the child care they're buying, and they aren't even buying high-quality care." In any other field, she notes, "We wouldn't tolerate an inferior-quality product with a high price tag."
As staff members pack boxes and polish résumés, Wohl tries to maintain an air of optimism. "The end of one era means a new one is starting," she says. "We're going to have to find ways to continue to make the case for early childhood education."
In the meantime, her group's collective voice, its passion for the well-being of young children, will be missed.