By Bonnie Rukin and Kathreen Harrison

ARWO Learning Center in Portland was founded by Naima Abdirhmon with the help of CEI.

Maine families statewide, including immigrant families, are familiar with the need for more affordable, quality childcare programs. These programs are not easy to start and run, however, and Maine has a dearth of them. The good news is that The Child Care Business Lab, a program out of Coastal Enterprises Inc. (CEI), helps entrepreneurs create financially viable, childcare businesses. Several initiatives, started by immigrant women, are now underway in Lewiston, a city that has been lacking in options for families with young children who seek culturally attuned childcare. One of these initiatives, the Happy Little Paradise Childcare Co-op, started by women in the Angolan community, is slated to open soon. Another, out of the Somali Bantu community, is in earlier stages of development, as is an initiative from a second group of women from Angola. Rayitos de Sol Bilingual Child Care Center recently opened in Milbridge.

Cynthia Murphy, senior program director of the Lab, called the program “business-model agnostic.” She said, “We want to meet people where they are. We work with people who want to start a small for-profit childcare in their home, or a larger for-profit or nonprofit center – or who want to start a cooperative childcare program. And when we have a group that wants to start a cooperative child care, Cooperative Development Institute (CDI) provides crucial technical assistance that streamlines the process of starting and running a democratically-owned business.” The CDI team, led by Katherine Bessey is especially talented at helping to develop the leadership skills needed to manage a democratically-owned business.

New Child Care Business Lab cohorts form each March, with the goal of businesses launching before the start of the following school year. The Somali-Bantu group is in the newly-launched 2021 cohort, as is the second group of Angolan women. The Child Care Business Lab supports cohort members through the complex maze of tasks associated with starting a childcare business. For those who already face barriers in navigating the U.S. system, the cohort program offers a lot of support. A series of 10 intensive workshops covers such topics as early childhood development, educational programming, licensing procedures, and the fundamentals of operating a business.

Workshops also provide individualized assistance from a business advisor and coaching from experienced child care mentors from Maine Roads to Quality Professional Development Network (MRTQ-PDN).In addition, there is a lot of paperwork involved to satisfy state record-keeping and site safety and licensing requirements. The program offers support in all of these areas, including training in recognizing signs of child abuse, and in health and safety. MRTQ-PDN, funded by the Department of Health and Human Services, (DHHS) provides all of the required training. The state’s childcare licensers also provide support.

Murphy said, “The licensers have provided valuable help in downtown Lewiston, where much of the housing stock is old, substandard, and full of lead paint. Figuring out what can be used as sites in Lewiston has been challenging, and the state’s licensers have been essential.”

The John T. Gorman Foundation has funded the Lewiston Child Care Business Lab program at CEI. After a successful pilot program in Maine’s “rim counties” funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children & Families, Office of Community Services, the Gorman Foundation provided a grant to create a new cohort in downtown Lewiston, a city that has more than 7,000 refugees and asylum seekers from over 30 countries. The goal is to add 50 childcare slots, thereby improving employment, education, earnings, health and general household well being.

Murphy is enthusiastic about including immigrant childcare providers in the Lab’s cohorts. “We are proud to be helping women create good jobs for themselves, and high quality childcare for other mothers so that they can work outside the home. And culturally attuned childcare really matters. Putting a child in an environment where they are celebrating and talking about the same holidays as their parents; reading books that use the words their parents use – that’s important. And it helps parents feel good and confident about putting their child in that childcare setting. In the case of the Angolan women, some have come to this country with experience in early childhood education., so transferring their experience and knowledge into becoming licensed childcare providers here in Maine is helpful for everyone.”

The CEI Child Care Business Lab is overseen by Senior Program Director Cynthia Murphy. For information: 887-9344.