On a recent morning, 14-month-old Kallen Terlecky toddled around the living room in his Fallbrook home, screaming loudly with joy.
His screeches are normal for a toddler but disruptive to his mom’s work meetings.
Kimberly Terlecky works as an accountant from home and had planned to have Kallen in child care. But all of the slots in their rural North County area are taken.
“We are on five waitlists,” Terlecky said. “It stretches from here in Fallbrook down to Oceanside. Everybody is booked.”
Terlecky and other Fallbrook parents are living in the biggest child care desert in the county.
There is just one licensed child care slot for every four kids under age 5 in their region, according to data from the San Diego YMCA. Meanwhile, nearby Carlsbad has one slot for every two kids under 5.
“It’s not just in Fallbrook,” Terlecky said. “It's Bonsall, Oceanside, Vista, Temecula. You might get lucky to get something in Temecula, but that's a 30-minute drive from here.”
The need for child care is dire everywhere. Staffing shortages, rising costs and COVID-19 forced one in eight child care businesses to close in San Diego County since March 2020. Added challenges worsened the Fallbrook region’s child care woes.
“A lot of the buildings are older, and so sometimes they don't meet the regulations for licensing,” said Nikki Boles, who owns Buds and Blossoms Preschool, one of the few preschools in the Fallbrook area.
At least seven other Fallbrook child care centers closed during COVID-19, according to state licensing data.
“Their providers were older and didn't want to risk COVID, so they decided to retire,” Boles said.
The Fallbrook region’s proximity to Camp Pendleton means lots of families with young kids live there — and those kids might not get into military child care. The population of children under age 5 in Fallbrook has grown 16% in the last 10 years — far outpacing overall population growth. And the child care supply hasn’t kept up with demand.
Boles is about to add 24 more slots, specifically for infants.
“I haven't advertised, I haven't done anything, and I've had people coming by and stopping and asking about the infant care and when it's going to open,” she said. “So I have 20 families on a waiting list.”
Meanwhile, Fallbrook resident Dennis Ashworth is taking on a new retirement project.
“I just kind of became aware of the need from talking to parents of quality child care in the area,” he said.
So he and his wife decided to open a home child care center during COVID-19, calling it Early Learning Home Child Care.
“Right now we have three children under 2 and three children over 2,” he said. “The phone's been ringing off the hook with moms with really young children looking for day care.”
Providers such as Ashworth can apply to the San Diego County YMCA’s Childcare Resource and Referral program for funding to help get their child care license or expand their license, said Laurie Han, the program’s associate director.
“Helping them open their license for the first time or expand their license to a large license,” she said. “Also if they want to expand to nontraditional hours or to change the children they care for to include infants and toddlers.”
The San Diego County YMCA also released its child care desert data, along with a heatmap for where there is the greatest need, to help providers decide where they might expand a business, or developers decide where to build.
Ashworth just expanded his license to take in more kids and said he is glad to use his energy and his Fallbrook home to help families in his village.
“If we weren't doing this, what would I be doing?” he asked. “I was just sitting around getting older. So I think it does keep you young, and it's kind of exciting every morning when the parents pull up with the kids, and the kids are always excited, so it's a good thing.”
But he knows adding a few more spaces at his home does little to change Fallbrook’s status as a child care desert.