Lili Zhang sits in her kitchen in a miniature chair pulled up to a tiny table feeding sliced apples and shrimp to a wiggly toddler on her left and boiled eggs to a sleepy baby on her right. As most days, she brings an attentive calm to juggling children with different preferences and schedules.
Midday sunlight streams through a wide bay window next to a polished piano, and foam puzzle pieces create a brightly colored play area underneath shelves holding books and baskets of toys. For Zhang, this building is both her home and her family child care business where she works 12- to 14-hour days.
“By the end of the day, I’m exhausted,” says Zhang. “But I love children so much. I love watching them speak their first sentence, introducing them to Chinese culture and sharing those joys with the parents.”
Zhang is one of many family child care operators in San Francisco who offer home-based care. In fact, this model accounts for one-quarter of the licensed child care available in the city. Despite steady investment in this sector through public and private initiatives, only 15% of 0-2-year-olds in San Francisco have licensed care, leaving almost 20,000 infants and toddlers without licensed care.
While some of these children are cared for by parents who want to stay home, or by friends or neighbors, there remains a significant gap for families who want or need licensed care. This work is critical in California where 62% of people live in child care deserts and family child care centers provide one-third of statewide child care slots.
Zhang was a teacher in China for many years, until she moved to San Francisco and started working as a Mandarin-speaking nanny. About five years ago, she began daydreaming about opening her own family child care home to serve more families.
Zhang was attending a workshop to learn about LIIF’s Family Child Care Startup Grant for early care and education (ECE) providers when she met Phranda Wolfe, a program officer for the Child Care Facilities Fund at LIIF.
Wolfe guided Zhang through an assessment to identify the materials needed to run a safe, quality program out of her home and provided technical assistance to create a budget and business plan. Ultimately, LIIF provided a $4,000 grant to purchase a crib, kid-sized furniture, reading materials, bookshelves and educational toys.
While $4,000 may not seem like a lot, LIIF has identified that small investments, responsive to individual need and offered alongside technical support, can be instrumental in the first year of an ECE business. The program is similar to models in other cities, including Boston’s Childcare Entrepreneur Fund.
“Starting a small business can be isolating, especially when you’re working from home,” says Wolfe. “We heard from many referral agencies that people were coming to them interested in providing care and education to infants and toddlers out of their homes, so we launched a program to partner with hopeful business owners, providing technical assistance, grant money and encouragement.”
Since March 2019, LIIF has awarded nine grants totaling more than $40,000 to create 54 new child care spaces in San Francisco, thanks to generous funding from the San Francisco Office of Early Care and Education. Startup grant funds are used to purchase furniture, educational materials, insurance or to cover the salary of an assistant while a provider attends school to gain credentials.
Fully 100% of LIIF startup grants have supported immigrant, women- and minority-owned businesses (WMBEs), and our technical assistance is offered in English, Cantonese, Mandarin and Spanish. LIIF’s culturally competent work in early care and education continues to be a pillar of our social justice and equity work.
“When I started my business in January, I didn’t have income to buy furniture,” says Zhang. “I was so happy to have support, especially in my first year. I have confidence now in the future of my business.”
LIIF’s startup grants support family child care businesses that are much smaller than the child care centers in LIIF’s portfolio, which can serve as many as 200 children. But in a city where zoning laws are strict, land is scarce and profit margins are slim, serving children out of homes has proved to be a smart solution.
Looking forward, there is opportunity to grow impact.
LIIF offers guidance for providers interested in enrolling in the Family Child Care Quality Network (FCCQN), an initiative for businesses offering seats to low-income children in exchange for subsidies and professional development. For providers hoping to one day expand or open their own business, LIIF offers technical assistance and expansion grants.
“LIIF’s family child care start up grant supports the spirit of small business,” says Wolfe. “Our goal is to help get them up and running so they can make a living and provide encouragement and thought partnership along the way. We’re here to walk the journey alongside them.”
For more information on LIIF’s Family Child Care Start Up grants, please contact Phranda Wolfe, program officer for LIIF’s Child Care Facilities Fund. She can be reached at email@example.com
Partners: LIIF would like to thank Wu Yee Children’s Services and the Children’s Council of San Francisco for their partnership as resource and referral agencies and the San Francisco Office of Early Care and Education for their continued funding of our work.