For the past 31 years, low-income families have counted on a United Way grant to help them pay tuition, reduced on a sliding scale, at Carroll Child Care Centers in Westminster.
But the nonprofit center recently received an unwelcome Christmas surprise: Its annual United Way funding will cease Dec. 31.
"Now they're more likely to fund large organizations, like the Cancer Society or the Boys & Girls Clubs," said Joyce Duffy, Carroll Child Care Center's executive director since March. "Stand-alone agencies like ours are not on their radar."
Annual funding from the United Way of Central Maryland - $35,000 this year - has kept the center's tuition-assistance program afloat. But a decision by the United Way to focus $10.5 million on 40 targeted nonprofits over the next 2 1/2 years has left almost 100 other agencies that had applied for grants without funding for next year, according to Larry E. Walton, president of the United Way of Central Maryland.
Particularly ironic to Duffy is that this year's United Way campaign video was filmed, in part, on location at Carroll Child Care Center.
"This happened with so little notice before the end of the year," Duffy said. "I'm hoping the community rallies around us and people will come forward to support these families."
More than half of the center's 75 clients are single mothers who would be completely dependent on welfare if not for affordable child care, which enables them to work, Duffy said.
With the sliding scale, poor families might pay $30 to $40 of the $130 to $200 weekly tuition, Duffy said. If a parent loses a job or has a protracted illness, full scholarships are temporarily available.
Said Patricia Bury of Westminster, as she picked up her two young granddaughters recently at the center: "They just take good care of them and have helped in times of need, more than once."
Forty of the center's most needy children will receive Christmas presents donated by the employees of Northrop Grumman. Car seats, bicycles and dolls were piled up in bags at the center for parents to take home, wrap and put under the tree.
The United Way had matched Northrop Grumman with the center, and Duffy doesn't know whether the company will donate presents again next year.
"The benefit from United Way has not just been monetary," Duffy said.
Many of the center's teachers are themselves struggling mothers who also received gifts.
Danielle Canoles, who works in a classroom with 2-year-olds, took home a car seat, baby food and a stuffed diaper bag for her 4-month-old and a friendship bracelet kit for her 6-year-old daughter.
"It's actually made my Christmas, more or less," Canoles said.
As a middle-class working mother, Rebecca Eckard pays full tuition to send her children to the center. Eckard says she finds the thought of the center's safety net reassuring when she considers the possibility of her family ever falling on hard times.
"If we're ever in a position not able to afford full-time tuition, obviously it's a comfort to know I would not be completely out of luck," she said.
About 20 percent of the center's children are minorities, and all of them, from infants to 10-year-olds, enjoy a culturally diverse environment. Student-painted flags from Italy, Mexico and the Netherlands adorn the bulletin boards.
On the first day of Hanukkah, Eckard, who is Jewish, came in to light the menorah, sing songs and spin dreidels with her daughters and her classmates.
The 37-year-old center has had students from Russia, India and the Philippines in the past and serves a number of black and Hispanic families.
"They grow together, so hopefully they won't have the same biases that many adults have," Duffy said. "They also don't know who's rich and who's poor. They're just all together."
For working poor families, the free breakfast, lunch and afternoon snack the center provides is important. In a recent week, Esther Baldwin, the center's 30-year veteran chef, prepared home-cooked batches of chicken noodle soup, turkey and dressing, and lasagna.
"If we did nothing but feed the children, their cognitive levels would be greatly improved," Duffy said.
Without the United Way grant, Duffy said the center will increasingly look to private donations, and state and federal grants, to make up its annual budget, which she estimated at $600,000 a year.
United Way donors can still designate their funds directly to Carroll Child Care Centers Inc., but a substantial portion of that money goes to United Way's administrative costs, Duffy said.
In early October, a group of philanthropists, through United Way, painted an aquatic mural in the center's playroom, transforming its drab, gray walls. Employees from T. Rowe Price also volunteer there several times a year and plan to continue even after the United Way grant expires, Duffy said.
The center was denied a $71,000 United Way grant for next year in a joint application with other county agencies, including the Judy Center and Carroll County Public Library.
"For whatever reason, their proposal did not merit the funding that some other proposals did for Carroll County," Walton said. "This was the most competitive process we've ever had."
In Westminster, the Carroll County Family Branch of the YMCA also provides child care to low-income families and will receive part of an $180,000 new United Way grant to the YMCA of Central Maryland, the YMCA's chief financial officer said.
For Carroll Child Care Centers, raising tuition would be a devastating, last-ditch effort, Duffy said.
"Parents who come here can't afford tuition hikes," she said. "We're a nonprofit. We're only in this for the children."