Chinatown finds a new way to tend its children

The snow is falling furiously outside, but inside this child-care center the atmosphere is warm. In one room, two-and-a-half- and three-year-olds play with blocks, listen to music, and crawl through a tunnel. Glittering foam-rubber art is displayed in the hallway, with names such as Evan and Linda next to Jie Yu and Wei Ping.

In another room, a three-year-old with red paint all over her white turtleneck shirt stands disconsolate as Mee-Ling Chin kneels down and talks to her in Chinese.

''I don't think she likes being messy,'' says Ms. Chin, director of the Garment Industry Day Care Center of Chinatown.

The newly opened center is the result of joint efforts by the local union, industry, and the City of New York to serve the many mothers who work in the garment industry concentrated here. It is an innovative model in the national search for ways to help working parents find affordable, good-quality child care.

In an area that most New Yorkers think of in terms of food - dim sum brunches and dinners of various provincial specialties - the Chinatown day-care center provides a basic need for mostly lower-income immigrant workers. Many of the seamstresses in the more than 400 factories here live and work nearby.

Having a safe place to take their preschool children was a top priority among workers polled several years ago by Local 23-25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).

This project is just one answer among many - and it would not work everywhere , child-care experts point out. While most workers in Chinatown live close by, on-site or near-site facilities are not preferable when many workers have to travel to their job. Most parents want community-based day care.

But the creative leveraging of public and private funds could break ground for similar partnerships, says Paul Larsen, deputy administrator in the city's Agency for Child Development (ACD). This type of coordination is essential, say many in the child-care field, to stretch pinched public money.

''The supply (of child-care services) no where meets the demand,'' says Mr. Larsen.

Most of the 70 children who attend the Chinatown center come from families that are eligible for the child-care subsidies the ACD administers. If the center was funded only by ACD, it would be open to 40 children. Financial support from the Greater Blouse, Skirt, and Undergarment Association in Chinatown has allowed 30 more children to receive care.

Those involved don't want the project to be seen as an example of the private sector picking up government responsibilities. There is near unanimity that the federal, state, and local governments should continue to provide funding for day care.

''This is not the private sector taking over day care, but an expansion of public day care,'' says Susan Cowell of the ILGWU.

Many businesses are too small to be able to afford day care services for workers on their own. Although the Chinatown program is partially financed through a consortium of small businesses, ACD, with funds from the Federal Emergency Jobs Act, provides approximately $44 of the $87 a week it costs to give a child day care. The garment industry donates some $32, and parents pay on a sliding scale, with the average payment per week being $6. Children at the center must have at least one parent who is a member of the union, and the family earning must fall within ACD income limits.

Dana Friedman of the Conference Board's Work and Family Information Center says financial assistance programs, in which companies reduce a worker's salary and in turn help provide for day care in his or her community, are increasing throughout the United States. Also popular are information referral services and voucher systems.

Mr. Larsen of ACD says he hopes efforts to tap more private-sector money will increase day-care services in New York City. The Chinatown model is an exception in some respects, but it shows how far creative cooperation can go. Larsen says some corporations will soon enter into contracts with ACD so their employees can enroll their children in public and private programs in their home communities. He expects such programs to be formalized within the next several months.

At the day-care center, the children, who are all Chinese, chatter in three different Chinese dialects. Few know English at this point. As visitors walk in among the youngest children, they look up, smiling, and sing out ''Hi!'' in loud , clear tones. Once the children are more settled, learning English will become a priority, says Ms. Chin. Though she wants the children to become bilingual, the program is designed to prepare the children for public school at age 6.

These are primarily first-generation Americans, and their parents will rely on them to become assimilated, notes one worker.

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