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This Arizona nonprofit helps get informal caregivers everything they need for the job

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Caregivers are often spoken of as the workforce behind the workforce. They include millions of moms, grandmas, aunts, friends and neighbors who watch other people's kids while parents go to work. In Arizona, a nonprofit has long worked to get these informal caregivers everything they need to do that job well. NPR's Andrea Hsu reports from Phoenix.

(CROSSTALK)

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: A half-dozen women, from their 30s to their 50s, gather for a few hours on a weekday morning. They are all caregivers at least part of the time. Take Yosbri Rojas, who has a son in elementary school. During the mornings...

YOSBRI ROJAS: (Speaking Spanish).

HSU: She offered to take care of two preschoolers while their dad, who works with Rojas' husband, is off installing fiber-optic lines. Graciela Cruz is also here. She works early mornings in a warehouse from 4 to 9 a.m. So during the day, she also watches two children, one of them her own.

GRACIELA CRUZ: I have a 2-year-old daughter, and I take care of a 1-year-old.

HSU: The child of her neighbors, who clean houses and offices for a living. Cruz and Rojas are part of a 12-week program called Kith and Kin. It's one of many initiatives Arizona is turning to to address a child care shortage in the state, but it was actually created 25 years ago to introduce standards to informal caregiving. Program director Angela Tapia says the program grew out of a study that looked at where children, birth to 5, were being cared for in the South Phoenix area.

ANGELA TAPIA: Sixty percent of children are actually in family, friend and neighbor care. And so there was a high need to provide both training and support in the communities that these families live.

HSU: Communities like this predominantly Spanish-speaking one, where parents often hold jobs with nontraditional hours and prefer caregivers who share their culture and language. The caregivers are playing a crucial role in the economy, enabling so many parents to go to work. Still, Tapia says, they often don't see themselves that way.

TAPIA: It's more something they do out of love and to help their family and friends.

HSU: Of course, caregiving is about much more than love. Over the 12 weeks, the women learn about everything from basic health and safety to more advanced topics, including one of Graciela Cruz's favorites - child development.

CRUZ: Brain development - I never, like, thought it was so much for a baby. I'm glad I took this class.

HSU: Now most government funding for childcare goes to licensed providers, but Arizona has long supported these unlicensed caregivers, too. Kith and Kin is paid for in part by the state's tobacco tax. Melinda Gulick is with the state agency, First Things First, that administers those funds.

MELINDA GULICK: It's that recognition of the family, friend and neighbor - the home care centers that we really want to support so that all the children are getting a quality early learning experience, No. 1. And No. 2, parents can go to work.

HSU: Which has become a huge priority since the pandemic. Gulick says, in some rural parts of the state, there is no licensed child care. And even where there are options, Arizonans are known for wanting choice.

GULICK: This is the Wild West, right? This is a liberty and freedom state. And so for many parents, the best place for them to be is with their auntie or their grandmother or in a co-op in their neighborhood.

HSU: That's certainly how Elvia Nunez feels about her grandson, Esteban.

ELVIA NUNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

HSU: She says when her daughter, who's a teacher, gave birth, she insisted that she be the one to watch the baby.

NUNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

HSU: "As his grandmother," she says, "my love is different from any other caregiver."

Nunez says she's gotten a lot out of the Kith and Kin class, including learning all kinds of ways to keep the 2-year-old entertained without screens.

NUNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

HSU: She says technology isn't good for him at this age. Meanwhile, while she's in class, Esteban gets to be with other kids in the child care room down the hall.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Hello, hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Can you stomp your feet?

HSU: It's helped him hit milestones around language and socialization.

ESTEBAN: (Vocalizing).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Inaudible).

ESTEBAN: (Vocalizing).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

HSU: At the end of the 12 weeks, the women mark milestones of their own with a graduation ceremony.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Bravo. (Speaking Spanish). Bravo.

HSU: And then they go back to work, nurturing the next generation and doing their part for the economy.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News, Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF STORMZY SONG, "HIDE AND SEEK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.