At the Luz Divina Day Care Center in Mercedes Norte, Heredia, 50 children are given the opportunity to learn and play while their parents work throughout the day.
The center, located north of San José, was founded by Yorleny Sáenz, who wanted to help the community by offering daycare services. She ran her project like any other business, where care was provided to children whose parents could afford it.
Yet while initially successful, after three years in operation, Sáenz said she faced a personal crisis that affected her business’s finances. In 2009, Sáenz was on the verge of losing her business because of mounting debt.
She was contacted by employees at the Heredia branch of the Mixed Institute for Social Aid (IMAS), who said they were interested in subsidizing her day care in exchange for accepting 15 children from low-income families, as part of the National Child Care Network. The additional income the subsidies provided was enough to temporarily help Luz Divina survive.
Later, through the same network, 35 additional families were granted the opportunity to take their children to the center.
With IMAS’ help, Luz Divina’s business model has gone through significant changes. Although it is still privately run, most of the children in the institution receive help from the government.
Last month, President Laura Chinchilla visited the center to inaugurate new classrooms. Luz Divina now has the space to attend 90 children from low-income families, subsidized by IMAS through the National Child Care Network.
The network was one of Chinchilla’s campaign promises. Before the 2010 election, Chinchilla spoke of the need to create child-care options that would allow parents to work. As one of the first actions of her administration, Chinchilla created the network, which aimed to launch several day care models that, in the end, would help increase the number of children in day care centers across the country.
Public day care has always been an option in Costa Rica. Traditionally, it has been done through the National Education Centers and Children’s Comprehensive Nutrition Centers (CEN-CINAI) and a handful of other options. However, past administrations took little interest in extending those services and adapting them to the growing population. During the second administration of former President Oscar Arias, officials promised to increase care coverage by 5,000 children, but only 80 new children were able to integrate into a CEN-CINAI.
Chinchilla’s plan is more ambitious. While still a candidate, she promised that the National Child Care Network would increase the day care population by 9,000 children. Shortly after her election, she raised that number to 15,000. To reach the goal, she created the Social Welfare and Development Ministry, and named Fernando Marín as its minister. She also assigned him to run IMAS.
“We have created a series of different modalities to reach our goals. CEN-CINAIs and other already existing subsidized institutions remain an option,” Marín said. “However, we are open to other sorts of agreements, like private business models that open up their centers to receive children who come from very difficult economic and social situations.”
Luz Divina is one of those centers. The day care center was able not only to keep its doors open, but also to offer children high-quality care and academic help. Luz Divina provides 12-hour care for children under 6, and after-school care for older ones. Once enrolled in the center, older kids have access to Spanish and English tutors who help them with their homework.
“Many of the children were coming from destroyed families where mothers, in some cases, were victims of abuse. We have started to see the results of quality care. Children excel in school, mothers have been able to get jobs, and others have left homes for abused women,” said Sáenz, Luz Divina’s founder.
According to Marín, the plan to increase care coverage by 15,000 children is beginning to function well. By August, IMAS had registered 1,500 new children in the network. The minister is convinced this number will double by the end of this year.
Building new infrastructure is the government’s biggest challenge. To meet Chinchilla’s goals, municipal agencies are joining together. Through the Family Allocation Fund, ₡7.5 billion ($150 million) is earmarked for increasing the network’s coverage, and 28 municipalities around the country are set to receive funds to build new public, private and mixed day care centers.