Talia Chavarillo holds her son Nico (KCAW/Rose)

Although Sitka is urban by Alaskan standards, there are surprisingly few childcare options for parents of infants and toddlers. The two largest centers can house only a handful of babies, since they require extra care. But it’s not just Sitka — Time Magazine recently called it a national “Childcare Crisis.”

In part one of our three-part series on childcare in Sitka, KCAW Reporter Katherine Rose talks to three mothers about how they’re handling the affordability and availability of local childcare. 

It’s 1 p.m. on a Monday, and Talia Chavarillo’s son is taking his afternoon nap.

“Nico is, he just turned two December 19. He’s a very active kid,” she laughs. “He’s got a sweet personality.”  

He’s had a big day so far.

“He was up at eight this morning, which was a nice surprise for me,” she says. “He had his breakfast, he played with his toys a little bit, and then we got dressed and went over to Totem Park.”

Talia and her husband Matt moved to Sitka three years ago. Matt is a teacher, and Talia is a stay-at-home mom. But until last fall, she worked as a controller at Harris Air. So, with both parents working, they had to figure out how to maximize their schedules, shifting things around so that one of them could be with Nico as often as possible. 

“I would be in the office by about five o’clock or six o’clock,” she says. “So I would get up, bike to work, and then Matt would wake up with Nico, take him to our babysitter. I would get off around one o’clock, two o’clock, pick him up.”

Matt was off on Saturdays and Sundays, so she would take a Sunday, Monday weekend. That way, Nico was only with the babysitter four days a week. But shuffling things around was getting hectic.

Then, in September, Harris Air closed its doors, and Talia realized something had to give. She started staying home with Nico every day. 

“We were spending about what I was making working at Harris Air to pay for childcare,” she says. “It just kind of wasn’t making sense for us to have someone else raise Nico while I was working to pay them.”  

This is a story echoed by many parents in Sitka and across the country. Childcare is costly, sometimes the cost breaks even with what a job pays. And even if you can afford it the options are limited — especially in rural communities like Sitka.

Mandy Evans is the grant director for STEPS (Supporting Transitions and Educational Promise in Southeast), which helped found the Early Childhood Coalition,  a group of organizations collaborating to address the concerns of parents of children, from newborn to age 5.

Last year, they went on an information expedition, surveying 233 parents and caregivers in Sitka. 

“I think we could have all guessed that childcare availability and affordability would have been a top issue,” she says. “But confirmed that.” 

And when it came to satisfaction, parents were the least satisfied with cost and availability of infant care. 

The Early Childhood Coalition surveyed over 200 parents and caregivers in Sitka in 2019. 66 percent of those surveyed said they had either “very low” or “low” satisfaction with the availability and cost of infant care in Sitka. (Chart provided by ECC)

Jenilyn Lo and her husband James moved to Sitka about 1 ½ year ago from Seattle — both to work at SEARHC as healthcare providers. When she moved here, she was pregnant with her daughter, Charlotte, who is now 8 months old.  

“Even in Seattle, I put myself on a waiting list with my job down there, before I even was pregnant because everybody warned me,” she says. “And then when I came up here I found that it was even more challenging to find childcare. And that was very true.” 

Jenilyn asked around about childcare for Charlotte. She checked two licensed daycare centers — both were at maximum capacity. One facility had a waitlist for infants, and another didn’t have an infant room at the time. Eventually she was able to find a babysitter who cares for Charlotte when she and her husband are both working.

Jenilyn Lo and her daughter Charlotte (KCAW/Rose)

Most parents don’t have one source of childcare though. Mandy Evans says based on the survey data they collected, Sitka’s parents are generally getting pretty creative with their childcare. 

“The majority of respondents definitely pieced together their childcare picture for the week,” she says. “There weren’t many answers that said ‘I do this one thing five days a week.’ It was a huge variety- a lot of two or three sources of care for the home.” 

“Step on into the baby office, it’s very appropriate,” says Makenzie Rose (no relation), gesturing to a playpen, changing table, and purple yoga ball in place of a typical office swivel- chair.

Makenzie is the development director at Raven Radio. She and her husband Simon have a 9 month old baby, Hava. Her office is baby-fied, because she spends half of her week caring for Hava while she works.

“When I first came back to work after maternity leave, she was with me for the full day for a month or so, and then we went down to half-day,” Makenzie says. “We’ve been using babysitters, so we’ve kind of cobbled together a five-day-a week, well for a long time it was just four days a week, we couldn’t find anyone for Wednesdays.” 

Makenzie Rose and her daughter Hava (KCAW/Rose)

So in the mornings, they juggle babysitters, and in the afternoons, Hava is in the office. Patching things together saves them a bit of money, but it still adds up to about 20 percent of Makenzie’s income. Ideally, Makenzie would love to take Hava to the same place, but it’s pricey and she says likes to have a little more control of who is watching Hava. But there are upsides and downsides to every care arrangement.

“I want to preface it by just saying how incredibly grateful that I get to do this. I know that it’s not an option for a lot of parents,” she says. “It’s really hard though. I feel like I’m not doing as good of a job at my job and I’m not doing as good of a job at being a parent. I think a lot of parents feel like that. I don’t really know what other option would be good because I can’t go eight hours without being with her. I don’t want to, I would feel so terrible.”

“So you just try to do as best you can,” she says, “but I’ve definitely sat in here and just cried.” 

It’s a nationwide phenomenon–the inability of parents like Simon and Makenzie, Jenilyn, James, Matt, and Talia to connect with adequate care in a way that works socially and financially for their families. As much as affordable healthcare shaped past election years, many believe that 2020 will be the year that presidential candidates turn to Universal Childcare.

Editor’s Note: In part two of our series on childcare in Sitka, we talk to providers about the challenges they face in making childcare affordable.