Earlier this month, Melanie Dodson’s 9-month-old son came down with a bad cough and fever.

“Since he couldn’t — and shouldn’t — return to child care until becoming symptom-free of fever for 24 hours,” Dodson said, “my husband and I spent a few hectic days juggling work schedules to take turns caring for him at home.”

To Dodson, who has been executive director of the Community Child Care Council, or 4Cs, of Sonoma County since 2008, the experience underscored how important it is that families have access to the kind of high-quality licensed family child care and preschools in which her son and daughter are enrolled.

“Those programs allow me to go to work each day and be a productive employee,” she said.

But such programs are expensive, making them beyond the reach of many working parents.

“The affordability of Early Care and Education programs is the most critical issue facing families with children,” Dodson noted.

“In Sonoma County it costs approximately $10,000 per year for a child to be in full day care before kindergarten, and up to $12,000 per year for infants. Parents simply can’t afford it.”

That’s where 4Cs enters the picture. Formed in 1972, the agency covers most of Sonoma County (the exception is the west county, which is covered by sister agency River to Coast Children’s Services), addressing the needs of families with children up to age 12.

One of the largest nonprofits in the county, 4Cs employs more than 100 people and has a $16 million annual budget.

About 90 percent of that is funded by the California Department of Education, and the rest by local government, private foundations, corporations and individual donors.

“Our biggest problem,” Dodson adds, “is that the Department of Education is not funding our program to its true cost, causing us to reduce classroom supplies and even staff.”

Improving the quality and availability of child care in the county is an immense job, requiring 4Cs to sponsor a wide diversity of programs and services centered around child care and education.

The agency’s 12 4Cs Child Development Centers and Preschools play a major role. Located in communities throughout the county and open weekdays from 7 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (9 a.m.-noon for preschools), they offer small staff-to-child ratios and serve a nutritious breakfast, lunch and afternoon snack.

Financial assistance is available to families who need it.

“Preschool is vitally important,” Dodson notes.

“Children become engaged in hands-on play, learn how to feel comfortable in a classroom and interact with peers. They’re exposed to books and undertake mathematical and sorting tasks, all of which prepare them for kindergarten and further success.”

And parents as well as children benefit from the centers and preschools, Dodson points out.

“Tons of families enroll kids in a program and, with child care solved, are able to move forward in life. One of our clients was a single, unemployed mother on welfare when she enrolled her daughter in the Sonoma program. She was then able to find a job and has remained gainfully employed, able to pay for necessities and rent. She’s working toward self-sufficiency.”