May 21, 2024

By: Julia Sclafani

When most people think about pressing national security concerns facing the United States, child care doesn’t usually come to mind. But for Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL),  lack of child care options for their 17,000 employees and its surrounding community has become mission critical.

“Our employees were really struggling with finding child care,” said Kathy Keith, Director of the LANL Community Partnerships Office.

In recent years, LANL undertook a big hiring push. Consequently, more employees than ever are claiming young children as dependents on their insurance, according to LANL. Facing a shortage of child care options, workers were faced with difficult decisions, such as forgoing employment at the Lab or patching together help from relatives.  

One such example is Emily Schulze, a project manager, who has two children ages 7 and 5. She and her husband returned to LANL in 2016. When Schulze became pregnant with their first child soon after, the couple knew they would have to be proactive, so they joined a waitlist at a local child care center right away.

“We secured a spot in my third trimester and were paying full price for an unborn child,” said Schulze. In total, the family paid for five months of unused child care, she said. They faced the same scenario with their second child.

When pandemic-era hybrid working came to an end, many workers were in need of expanded or first-time child care options.

Schulze co-chairs the LANL Women’s Employee Resource Group, which, along with the Dependent Caregivers’ Employee Resource Group, was active in pressing LANL to address the child care crisis. The  groups worked to assess the situation facing the LANL community by surveying more than 900 employees.

Realizing the Lab would struggle to recruit and retain the top talent required for its important mission, Triad, the organization that manages and operates LANL, began seeking ways to relieve the child care crunch. They convened a meeting with the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce and local child care providers and found that every child care center in the area carried a waiting list, oftentimes more than a year long. It was clear the market wasn’t going to fix itself.

“Our priority was: how do we create more opportunities for child care while not harming the child care providers that we currently have?” said Keith. “We really needed to find a partner in the community that understood and was experienced in doing child care.”

Triad solicited proposals to find an existing area child care provider that could expand their operations. The University of California, a parent entity of Triad, pledged $2 million towards renovation and supplies for the new facilities. Triad has pledged ongoing financial support for operations of the new facility.

The Bilingual Montessori School (BMS), located in White Rock, was chosen as the operator of the new facility, and real estate developer Columbus Capital supplied a suitable property on Trinity Drive in Los Alamos for the campus.

The new BMS facility in Los Alamos will comprise of four buildings to house aged-based classrooms, which will open as renovations and staffing are completed. The infant building, which opened in March, is fully enrolled. The young toddler building opened its doors on May 1. At full capacity, the new center will serve 150 infants and toddlers.

“I’m very proud that with all of our experience and know-how, we were awarded the job,” said BMS Owner and Director Odalys Gonzalez, who began working in early childhood in White Rock in 1985. “The Lab has cooperated with us, and I feel very comfortable with the partnership we have made.”

Those community partnerships are at the heart of the project’s success.

“Communities are built on small and local businesses,” said Greg Gonzales, Director of Development and Construction at Columbus Capital, which has a long relationship of working with LANL and the local chamber of commerce.

“This isn’t a widget maker or a sandwich shop—these are our kids,” he said. “To have a local community member with a track record, it offers comfort about the service you are going to get.”

In fact, Gonzales spoke from close experience—his own two children, who are now out of high school, attended BMS in White Rock.

The group began renovations in July 2023 and, on March 11, 2024, representatives from LANL, BMS, and the University of California came together to celebrate a ribbon cutting for the first two infant classrooms, with ECECD Cabinet Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky in attendance.

When BMS opened the doors of its infant facility in Los Alamos on March 18, Louie Chacon and Abrianna Martinez were eager to drop off their 10-month-old son, Louie. The pair live in El Rito and each make the 60-mile commute to work at LANL.

Previously, the couple had relied on their mothers to watch Louie during the workday. However, when Chacon read about BMS, he realized having child care near their workplace could benefit the family. They joined the wait list on the day it opened.

“I go to work at 5 a.m.,” Chacon said. “In the afternoon, I’m able to pick him up right there, just 5 minutes away from work.” Previously, when Chacon drove to Chimayo to pick up Louie from his mom’s house, it added up to an hour to an already long commute.

For the young family, the benefits go alleviating stress around child care.

“We love that he’s not the only kid,” Chacon said. “Here, he’s learning to be sociable from a very young age.”

“He’s happy,” Martinez added. “And for us, that goes a long way.”

While the center will make a significant dent in the local child care deficit, there is still more to do. The waitlist at the new center already includes over 400 children.

Nonetheless, the public-private collaboration in Los Alamos can serve as a blueprint for other communities looking to improve early education access for families.

Similar partnerships have already improved access in Silver City and Santa Fe, and several major employers throughout the state are actively investigating options for boosting child care in their own communities.

“I would encourage others not to do it in a bubble,” Keith reflected. “I think one of the best things we did was reach out to the community child care providers to understand what the needs were. And to understand what business models looked like for them so that we were adding to, not disrupting what was already in the community.”