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Child care taskforce, led by the Greater Yuma Economic Development Corporation, is announced at Child Care Crisis Forum

Leaders gather to discuss the child care crisis in Yuma.

First Things First Yuma Regional Director Rudy Ortiz wants people to stop thinking that preschool is cute. 

“Get the word cute out of your vocabulary today and insert the word crisis,” Ortiz said. 

The FTF Yuma Region, along with the Greater Yuma Economic Development Corporation and the Yuma County Chamber of Commerce recently hosted the Yuma County Child Care Crisis Leadership Forum at OC Johnson Elementary School, which brought together leaders from sectors including business, higher education and the faith community. 

Economic impact

Ortiz spoke about the economic impact that the child care shortage is having on Arizona and Yuma County. Child care challenges cost $1.7 billion annually to the Arizona economy.

“Our goal is to bring attention and make the child care crisis a priority that supports the  workforce,” Ortiz said. “Yuma County doesn’t work if child care doesn’t work.”

There are 18,000 children under age 6 in Yuma County, but the child care and preschool system only has capacity for 6,000 children, he said.

“First Things First is proud to provide thought, but the action we need now is more than First Things First,” Ortiz said. “What I’ve learned through this process is that it is going to take all of us in Yuma County to solve this. The call to action today wasn’t just to see the crisis in person and hear the wonderful things in this school district and how they’ve expanded. We need a hub, a place to convene there everyone can come together to support this process.” 

Greg LaVann, interim president and CEO of the Greater Yuma Economic Development Corporation is working with FTF to set up a taskforce to brainstorm innovative solutions for child care in Yuma County.

The characteristics of economic development and growth in communities have changed since COVID, LaVann said. As the organization surveyed companies after the pandemic, they asked, What do you need going forward?

“The one resounding message was, ‘I can’t get people to come back because of child care,’” LaVann said. “We didn’t expect that.”

Employers said that employees had to choose between going to work or staying at home to take care of their children. 

“Rudy was one of the first calls we made,” LaVann said. “We have to address this or we can’t move forward.”

Benefits of high-quality preschool

Ortiz began the forum by reviewing early childhood education research that has proven the benefits of high-quality preschool programs for young children. These benefits include entering kindergarten more prepared with less chance of being placed in special education and a lower risk of later grade retention. Longer-term benefits include higher graduation rates, higher median income, less dependence on government services and more.

He also shared what community leaders told him. 

“I’m hearing, ‘Rudy, these businesses aren’t coming to Yuma County because of the workforce,” he said. “There has to be a moment where we support the workforce of today and prepare the workforce for tomorrow at the same time.”

Forum attendees heard from FTF CEO Melinda Morrison Gulick about how different communities across Arizona have mobilized to expand preschool opportunities through various funding sources. 

The event also included a visit to one of the school’s preschool classrooms. A Read On Arizona case study recently revealed that the preschoolers at O.C. Johnson Elementary, which serves predominantly Hispanic and economically-disadvantaged students in Yuma, have consistently outperformed statewide averages on key early literacy benchmarks.

In 2022, 93% of the school’s exiting preschool students met or exceeded early childhood benchmarks in both language and literacy, 24 percentage points above the state average for language and 18 points higher for literacy.

The forum ended with a panel discussion, which included LaVann; January Contreras, president and CEO of Children’s Action Alliance; Daniel Corr, Arizona Western College president; Kimberly Kah, executive director of the Yuma County Chamber of Commerce; Pastor Tyrone Jones of Church of the City; Shelley Mellon of Southwest Arizona Education Center and Art Morales, a Yuma City Council member. 


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