116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
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Julienne Bututo took care of neighbors’ younger children when she was a four-year-old in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“She loved it, so she started training,” said Maureen Lilechi, translating for Bututo who speaks French. “Through the training, she was able to learn. She had her skills but she didn’t know the professional aspect of it.
“Now she knows how to care for children in America.”
Bututo is one of more than 30 recently arrived women who have become state-licensed child care providers through the Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids.
Lilechi, the center’s business development coordinator for refugee child care, said its program addresses two problems — the need of immigrants and refugee parents whose children need care as they earn a living, and the women’s desire to establish their own home-based businesses.
“It allows the refugee community to go to work,” Lilechi said. “Some of the kids speak English, and some speak their native language, so it’s the providers learning from the kids and the kids learning from them.”
The center’s program was launched in 2019, funded by a three-year grant from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Lutheran Services operates a similar program in the Des Moines area.
“They didn’t have anywhere to go because of the language barrier,” Lilechi said. “They didn’t know the system.
“Through this program, we are able to educate the providers. And these providers speak their language, eat the same food. They can communicate with the parents so it’s really a good fit.”
How many nationalities?
“A lot. We’ve trained mostly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their main language is French, Swahili and Bangala. We have some from Rwanda,” Lilechi explained.
“It’s mostly Africans. This year we’re going to start a new class for Afghans, so it’s going to be a different dynamic. I speak Swahili.”
“We know there’s a child care crisis right now, but finding providers who speak the same language when they come from a different country is a challenge,” said Rachael Bonefas, child care consultant for the state’s Child Care Resource and Referral program.
Child Care Resource helps providers in the McAuley Center program prepare for state Department of Human Services licensing and annual inspections.
“It’s a pretty neat program, and the way that the Catherine McAuley Center is able to support women and their families to create businesses with them, I’ve just been really impressed,” Bonefas said.
The program also covers accounting and business skills providers need to maintain a successful business.
“Back home day care is just, ‘I’ll watch your kid,’” Lilechi said. “They don’t commercialize it, it’s just babysitting. They don’t know it’s a profession.”
Iowa Department of Human Services child care specialists lead classes at the center over a six-week schedule.
“It’s an ongoing support, one on one,” Lilechi explained. “We have computers for them, so we help them navigate how to request payment from DHS because most of their clients do have child care assistance.
“We show them how to request payment, we help them apply for the DHS license. It’s a very complicated application."
“The training was good, very good,” said Maombi Roussi, who arrived in Cedar Rapids from Burundi in 2016.
“She is our pioneer,” Lilechi said of Roussi. “She was resettled by Catherine (McAuley Center). She heard there was a program that helps women open up home day cares. That’s how she ended up enrolling.”
Roussi provides evening care and supervision in her southwest Cedar Rapids mobile home for two children whose parents work the night shift.
“I have experience watching different ages,” she said. “It’s not a challenge for me.”
Round-the-clock child care is especially important for recent arrivals who work the night shift and may not yet hold a driver’s license.
“They may work for Tyson, and it’s 2 a.m.,” Lilechi said. Providers “get the kids. They go out of their way.”
State rules limits providers to six children under age five and two school-aged children. Before the COVID-19 pandemic claimed many parents’ jobs, Roussi was booked to her limit of eight.
“The child care providers were really hit by COVID,” Lilechi said. “When she’s full, she makes a pretty much decent income to sustain her family.”
Child care assistance is available to any family qualifying for the state’s Family Investment Program, which provides cash assistance to low-income families as they become self-supporting.
Other families may qualify if the parents meet income guidelines and need child care as they work or attend school.
“When we’re working with unique populations, typically what families are looking for are providers who are familiar with their own culture,” said Ryan Page, regulatory program manager for child care.
“Many times they’re also living in close proximity, and this is another way for the families to access child care.”
Lilechi said overcoming landlord objections has been a challenge. Landlord approval is required for providers in rented homes.
“We are trying to talk to them and let them know, ‘Hey, this is already a big family. I might as well take care of two other kids and be able to afford the rent as well, supplement my husband’s rent,’” she said.
As more providers are trained, their services are likely to extend beyond immigrant and refugee families. Lilechi said she’s already fielded calls from parents of all races seeking care for their children.
“We have (providers) registered with Iowa Childcare Resource and Referral, so their names are on their list and they do receive calls,” said Lilechi, who can provide a personal reference.
“I have one of the providers watching my child,” said Lilechi, who’s from Kenya. “I tried to find child care and I was on the waiting list for a very long time, so I said, ‘Why not?’
“I did not know about the program until I started working here.”
Roussi hopes to expand her offerings to more local families. She’s taking Kirkwood Community College classes to learn how to build her business.
“Her dream is to buy a house,” Lilechi said.
“She wants to expand her business, but she feels this place is not enough.”