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An RV renovated into a childcare classroom is painted with teddy bears inside and out and is named "Honey." This vehicle will travel to substance abuse and mental health treatment centers in and around Denver, while a second RV is scheduled to circulate the San Luis Valley. (Provided by Illuminate Colorado)

Rewa Bailey’s office inside a substance abuse treatment center has an infant swing in the corner. Baby gates strategically placed throughout the building corral toddlers while their mothers try to focus on group therapy sessions.

And as often as possible, the staff at Aspen Center in Westminster switches out the toys in an attempt to keep the tiniest humans in the rooms entertained so their moms can focus on getting off drugs, most commonly heroin and methamphetamine.

What this place needs is a day care center.

Later this month, help is coming — in the form of a giant RV gutted and transformed into a child care center with cribs, books and toys. The vehicle, named “Honey” after the teddy bear painted on its side, will spend time parked outside of Aspen Center locations and other substance abuse and mental health treatment centers throughout the Denver area. 

If there is enough money to pull it off, a second day care on wheels will circulate among treatment centers in the San Luis Valley, an area hit hard by the opioid crisis. 

The two traveling classrooms were funded using a mixture of state dollars, federal grants and private donations in 2019. Then this year, because of the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic crisis, the state legislature stripped public funding for the project. 

Organizers raised enough money to get the Denver-based RV ready to accept babies, but the one planned for the Alamosa area is on hold until funding is secured. Each unit costs about $250,000 to buy and renovate, and requires $150,000 to $200,000 per year to operate, including maintenance, storage and teacher salaries. 

Aspen Center’s “special connections” program in Westminster is one of the few residential treatment centers in the state that provides beds not just for pregnant women, but new moms and their babies. Children up to age 2 are allowed to live with their moms in the treatment center. There is no in-house day care center, which would require licensing, trained teachers and other costs. 

Outpatient treatment centers don’t have day care centers, either. And only 3% of outpatient centers in Colorado let children attend appointments and group sessions with their parents.

A crib on wheels, which would serve as an evacuation device in the event of an emergency, is parked in the RV’s kitchen. (Provided by Illuminate Colorado)

Illuminate Colorado, a nonprofit spearheading the project, is now holding a virtual community baby shower, asking people to purchase toys and baby supplies to stock the RVs. The nonprofit scaled back the number of teachers per RV to two from three, each earning about $50,000 per year. 

The Denver day care is scheduled to start taking babies and toddlers before the end of the month, and organizers are hoping to send off the second mobile classroom to stops in Alamosa, Monte Vista and Del Norte by the end of this year or early next year.

The mobile classrooms are dividing their time among multiple treatment centers, parking outside each one for about half a day. The centers plan to stack their appointments with clients who have young children on the days that the RV is parked outside. 

Babies and toddlers are a “huge deterrent” to getting drug treatment, especially for moms, said Bailey, who runs the special connections program. They often do not have a trusted family member or friend who will watch their child, and it feels overwhelming to find and pay for child care on top of finding a ride or taking the bus across town to an appointment. On top of all that, Bailey said, they are addicted to drugs and likely don’t feel healthy. 

“Even though it’s the best option for their family, it’s a really difficult decision to make and sometimes they don’t,” said Bailey, who helped plan the RV project.  

“I’m so excited. I think it’s going to help us limit the number of ‘My kid is sick. I can’t come’ and ‘I don’t have anyone to watch my baby. I can’t come.’”

The RV project not only required public and private funding, but changes in state law. Legislation in 2019 authorized the mobile day care centers, allowing for exceptions to some of the rules that brick-and-mortar child care centers are required to follow. For one thing, parents who drop off infants and toddlers in the RVs have a 30-day grace period to submit paperwork showing their babies are up to date on immunizations. 

The legislation designated $500,000 per year for three years, through the state Office of Early Childhood. Thanks to coronavirus, the public money lasted only for one year. 

The RV day care centers have roots going back to 2017, when Illuminate began an “environmental scan” to find out how the opioid epidemic was affecting families. The nonprofit discovered that a major barrier to getting treatment was child care, according to executive director Jade Woodard. The vast majority of adult treatment centers don’t allow children, and even when they do, it’s not ideal for parents.

“When we think about some of the families we will be serving, they have experienced significant amounts of trauma,” Woodard said. “It’s likely not the most therapeutic environment for the mom, or the baby, to be talking through past trauma while you hold your baby.” 

Child care is hard to find in Colorado, especially for parents who need only a few hours per week. “It was before COVID and it certainly is now during COVID,” Woodard said. “The choices for parents are so limited. If we could provide a choice that was safe and free and onsite, it would increase the likelihood that they would go.” 

Jade Woodard, executive director of Illuminate Colorado, describes the carpeted climbing area that covers the RV’s hydraulic system and that once had a queen-sized bed. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

Illuminate borrowed the idea of mobile day care units from a preschool program funded through the Aspen Community Foundation, which until last year brought mobile school to kids in Rifle, Silt and New Castle. The idea is spreading — a mobile preschool launched in Denver last month. Mile High United Way turned a former airport shuttle bus into a classroom, which operates in the “day care desert” neighborhoods of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea.

The RV day care centers will each have two teachers, and room for up to five infants and five toddlers. Each child can stay a maximum of three hours in a 24-hour period. The RVs are split into toddler and infant sections, with art and reading zones. A climbing area with carpeted stairs took the place of a queen-sized bed. The bathroom was remodeled to include a tiny toddler toilet, about 1-foot high. 

Madison Clay, who was hired as a teacher for the Denver bus, has to learn to drive — and park — the gigantic RV. “It’s much bigger in person,” she said last week, sitting on a cooler in front of the vehicle to help collect donations of diapers and infant formula. “I am feeling a little nervous right now.”

Treatment providers are bracing for a wave of patients seeking help after the coronavirus pandemic subsides, as studies have found that substance use — particularly meth, opioids and alcohol — increased nationwide during the pandemic. At the same time, many people have avoided going to appointments or starting treatment during the pandemic. 

A sign at the entrance to the “Honey” RV offers encouragement for the moms and dads who will drop off their children during treatment sessions. (Provided by Illuminate Colorado)

A lack of child care is “the No. 1 worry” for many mothers, said Patsy Bruce, child care manager for Illuminate. 

“By having RV Honey out in the community, it will definitely give the ladies ease knowing that their children are provided for,” Bruce said. “We are able to offer this to an exclusive group of people, people who are currently vulnerable right now, and it will definitely lessen the stress.” 

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...