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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Website for the rebuild effort of Mark West Community Preschool: rebuildmarkwest.com

With her two toddlers safely buckled up in the back seat of her white SUV, Katie Davis of Windsor visited on Friday the empty lot where Mark West Community Preschool once stood.

Wild sunflowers, oats, rye grass and other weeds obscured any evidence of the child care center that before last October once hosted 60 children. All that remains are a rusted swing, a garden trellis, small lunch tables and benches and the corpse of one of 18 chickens that could not be evacuated.

Davis, whose 3-year-old daughter McKenzie attended the preschool, stopped by the site to remove an old sign for a spaghetti feed she organized in January to help rebuild the preschool.

“It was an amazing place — I want to be able to send him through, as well,” Davis said, referring to her son Bradford, who is almost 2 years old.

That hope depends on whether business partners Renee Whitlock-Hemfouvanh and Jenny Kenyon can raise the $1.5 million to $2 million it will now cost to rebuild. Whitlock-Hemfouvanh, who also visited the site Friday afternoon, said the roughly $630,000 insurance payout for the property barely covered the mortgage she and Kenyon took out when they purchased the facility in 2013.

The $300,000 they invested in the business for remodeling, landscaping, furniture, office and school equipment, and startup payroll costs was a total loss.

Mark West Community Preschool, one of three preschools Whitlock-Hemfouvanh and Kenyon operate, has since relocated to a much smaller property near Coddingtown Mall. But the move has led to a significant loss of child care slots, with the preschool’s roster of children going from 120 to 80 kids and its staff of 14 teachers shrinking down to eight.

The two largest infernos on the North Coast last October, the Tubbs and Nuns fires, destroyed 5,420 homes and commercial buildings, mostly in Sonoma County. Among that devastation were 15 licensed child care facilities, including 11 family child care homes and four preschool and after-school programs, displacing 444 children across the county.

Local child care experts say that loss was a huge blow to local families, particularly in a county that suffered from a short supply of quality, affordable child care even before the fires.

Nine months after the firestorm, plans to bring back those child care centers and preschools are hampered by the same obstacles that have crippled local efforts to rebuild neighborhoods, especially rising construction costs and insufficient insurance payouts.

“I’m hearing that there’s just not enough insurance, that they’re having to take out business loans,” said Tiffani Montgomery, a spokeswoman for Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County, or 4Cs.

County officials and child care advocates say the need to rebuild the child care sector is crucial.

Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who sits on the First 5 commission, said the shortage of child care in Sonoma County is similar to that of the impacted housing market, and the fires only made it worse.

“It’s heartbreaking because the people who are working in child care aren’t there because of the money, they’re there because they love children,” Hopkins said.

To meet the demand for child care facilities, the First 5 commission is “front-loading” grants, spending funds this year that would have been spent three years from now, Hopkins said.

“We’re basically turning out our pockets and investing more money up front to help these communities recover from the fire,” she said.

Cary Rich, who operated Rich Family Day Care Home with her husband out of their rental home on Old Redwood Highway, near Cardinal Newman High School, recently received a First 5 grant of $100,000. The couple’s home and business was destroyed by fire and they have been living in an RV on a friend’s property in Forestville.

With space provided by Church of the Incarnation in downtown Santa Rosa, the couple opened a new child care facility called Santa Rosa Rise and Shine Child Care Center. The $100,000 grant will allow Rich to remodel the church space.

“We were very, very excited,” Rich said. “This will enable us to expand our business and provide needed infant spaces for Santa Rosa families.”

Of the 11 licensed home-based child care facilities lost during the fire, only two have come back, according to Lara Magnusdottir, public policy director for 4Cs. The nonprofit agency serves as the county’s referral hub for child care services, provides training and support services to child care providers and operates 11 state-funded preschools.

In April, 4Cs distributed $150,000 to Sonoma County families and child care providers. The funds came from the North Bay Fire Relief Fund, which raised $32 million from over 41,100 donors following last year’s fires.

Montgomery said 4Cs also received $25,000 from the Sonoma Pride fundraiser, a partnership between Russian River Brewery and the King Ridge Foundation. But she said 4Cs still didn’t have enough for all those who applied for help.

“Between the centers and providers and families, we were $52,000 short,” Montgomery said.

In distributing its North Bay Fire Relief Fund grants, 4Cs was able to give 59 grants of $1,000 each to families that were directly impacted by the fires and subsequently endured child care-related issues.

Another 27 child care providers and centers received $100,000 in funds, with family child care providers getting $2,500 each and child care centers like Mark West Community Preschool receiving $20,000.

Aside from Mark West Community Preschool, Santa Rosa child care centers destroyed in the fire include St. Rose Preschool, Extended Child Care Riebli, YMCA Sunshine St. Rose, YMCA Sunshine Schaefer and Hidden Valley Child Care.

Susy Marron, coordinator of the Sonoma County Child Care Planning Council, said the county had made significant gains in access to preschool slots prior to last year’s fires. But infant and toddler child care was in short supply, and availability of these slots were only exacerbated by the fires, she said.

“Statewide, there is not enough infant and toddler care to meet the demand,” she said. “It’s more expensive to operate an infant and toddler program than a preschool or school-age program. The state does not provide enough financial reimbursement for programs to be able to stay open.”

Many providers, both home-based and larger child care centers, operate on thin margins, said Marron. Most, she said, are not in the business of providing child care for the money but rather because they love children.

Kathie Gross, who until last October operated Kathie’s Child Care at her home on Cashew Road near Coffey Park, said she hopes to one day return to providing child care. For the moment, she said, it isn’t financially feasible.

Gross, who owned her home, had added a 450-square-foot play area and a 50-foot-long race track so kids could ride their bikes and scooters. Though she filed a claim for $432,000 in lost personal property, she received only $160,000.

She said she’ll use that money to help cover the cost of rebuilding her home, which will be significantly more than what she’s getting from her insurance company. But more important than the loss of her business, she said, is the loss of the relationships she developed with the children she cared for.

“I had six children all under 4 years old and I spent more time with them than anybody in my life,” she said. “I miss these children in my life on a day to day basis.”

Standing in the weed-filled lot of the Mark West Community Preschool, Whitlock-Hemfouvanh describes the garden, custom wood play structure and 18 chickens and two goats that once roamed about the back of the 1-acre property.

Whitlock-Hemfouvanh and Kenyon have plans to rebuild; they also received a $100,000 grant from First 5. But much more is needed.

“If you run the numbers from a strictly business perspective, nobody would do this,” she said, looking at the ash-covered back lot. “But that’s not why we’re in this business.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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