Patty Ray of Hug-A-Bear Care works with a student on reading skills. Ray says that many Montrose families are struggling just to get by. Photo by Cara Fandel.

Patty Ray of Hug-A-Bear Care works with a student on reading skills. Ray says that many Montrose families are struggling just to get by. Photo by Cara Fandel.

By Caitlin Switzer

REGIONAL—(February 4, 2014) What a difference 12 months can make. When Patty Ray opened her Montrose business, Hug-A-Bear Child Care & Learning Center, in 2007, her clients were 90-percent private payers.

“Then the economy tanked, and parents were no longer working,” Ray recalls. “In one year I saw the trend reverse—suddenly 90 percent of our clients were on child care assistance, as people lost their jobs, their homes, their cars.”

Today, though Hug-A-Bear Child Care & Learning Center remains near its capacity of 50 kids per day from age six-weeks to around ten years, 95 percent of clients are on some form of childcare assistance, Ray said. And things are not getting any better.

“Child poverty here in Montrose is horrendous,” Ray said. “And this year is the worst ever—kids come in without coats, without snow boots, without anything. Thank goodness for Cobble Creek Golf Course—they graciously helped us with Christmas for kids who would have had no gifts, and no dinner. They gave 16 families $50 gift certificates, and made sure 26 kids got presents who would not have had Christmas at all.

“They are wonderful to us every year, but this year was hardest of all.”

Juli Messenger, executive director of the non-profit Partners of Montrose and Delta counties, said that need for the organization’s services is almost overwhelming.

“The need I see is just mind-numbing,” Messenger said. “Kids arrive to activities without having eaten; we always provide a snack if there is no meal, because so many of them are hungry.”

With so many local parents struggling to feed their families, Messenger said she has found her own priorities shifting.

“I think there are just some things you understand best if you are sitting down to an empty dinner table,” she said.

For 20 years, the KidsCount project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation has been compiling statistics on child well-being in America. According to KidsCount data, Colorado currently ranks 19 out of 50 states when it comes to overall economic well-being, but ranks 21 out of 50 states when it comes to the well-being of children living in the state.

Child well-being rankings are based on 12 indicators in the areas of children’s health, education, and family and community support. Of the 25 counties in Colorado considered large enough to be ranked (there are 64 counties in the state), Douglas County scores the highest marks for child well-being, while Denver County ranks lowest. Here in the six-county West Central Region of the Western Slope, only Montrose and Delta counties were considered large enough to be ranked, coming in at 18th and 20th respectively for child well-being indicators. Neighboring Mesa and La Plata counties, both home to institutions of higher education, were ranked 12th and 10th in the state, respectively.

By analyzing the local data, Colorado communities can do a better job serving children, Colorado Children’s Campaign CEO Chris Watney said.

“Where a child lives has significant implications on whether she can access health care, quality education and enjoy a safe neighborhood,” Watney said in a news release. “There are many children doing very well in Colorado, but also a lot of kids who are struggling. Digging into the data helps local and state policy makers, as well as committed individuals in communities, focus proven solutions in areas where kids need the most help.”

Statewide, 18 percent of Colorado’s kids live in poverty, according to KidsCount data. In Montrose County, the child poverty rate is 25.3 percent, compared to 24.8 percent in Delta County, 18.2 percent in Gunnison County, 17.4 percent in Ouray County, 16.4 percent in San Miguel County, and 27.7 percent in Hinsdale County.

Data compiled for the most recent “Inside Montrose County” report notes that young families are now six times more likely to be poor than older families, that more than one-third of the local population can be classified as “low income,” and that the caseload for self-sufficiency programs increased between 60 to 100 percent from 2008 to 2012.

Educational opportunities also correlate to child well-being. KidsCount data notes that, here in Montrose County, KidsCount stats show a graduation rate of 78 percent, compared to 84 percent in Delta County, 87 percent in Gunnison County, 86 percent in Ouray County, 88 percent in San Miguel County and 80 percent in Hinsdale County.

Patty Ray said that based on her own experiences, Montrose needs jobs more than anything else right now. She believes a more sensitive tax-structure would allow employers like herself to hire more people—she currently employs 12—and would encourage other employers to do business in Montrose.

“Couples are struggling, not just single parents,” Ray said.

“It’s time our city and our county look at attracting more businesses to the area,” she said. “I have seen a lot of families come and go because they couldn’t find work, and lots of folks who did have jobs don’t have jobs now. So many of our parents are working to re-invent themselves—they have gone back to school, and now many of them are about to get out and look for jobs—but where are the jobs?

“We should re-invite Cabela’s to locate here,” she said. “Let’s really focus on that type of company and that kind of sell. We need to re-invent ourselves!”

Chuck Turner of Montrose, 20, who graduated from Montrose High School in 2012, knows firsthand about the hardships of growing up without financial security or a stable home environment. Though Chuck—always a good student–plans to go on to college soon, it has not been easy.

“Well, not growing up with a lot of stuff that other people have can have a negative impact and make some kids feel like they’re never gonna be good enough to have those things or be able to provide those things to their kids when they have their own,” Turner said. “Some of my friends that have been in similar situations as me feel that way. I, on the other hand, accepted the challenge and it’s pushed me harder to do well in life and that’s what I’m planning on. Instead of letting it hold me back, as others would, I think of it making me stronger than someone who grew up with a lot of opportunities because they would feel that a good opportunity will just be dropped in their lap.

“That’s just how I feel.”