When Adelaida Velásquez first heard about a subsidized child care center in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, she didn’t know that it would do so much more than just provide her with child care.
But it did — the center would go on to change her life.
The then 34-year-old single mother wanted to return to school “at least to study the basics” and Pasos Pequeñitos (Spanish for “little steps”) provided child care and an education scholarship that made it possible for her to return to school.
The center in Honduras' capital was founded in 2005 to provide affordable daycare services specifically to low-income single parents who were returning to school. Pasos Pequeñitos offers education scholarships on an individual basis to help cover the costs of school, related supplies, and transportation. By furthering their education, parents are able to shift away from informal work and tap into salaried positions, which often provide them with opportunities to earn more and to better support their children.
Like many other parents at the center, Velásquez would wake up early to take her son Leonardo to Pasos Pequeñitos before her classes, and would spend her nights studying.
“I would go to bed at 1 a.m. [after] doing my homework,” she told Global Citizen. “It was like that every evening.”
And it paid off.
Velásquez, who made the decision to return to school over a decade ago, now works for the government, and Leonardo, who spent his time at the center learning colors and multiplications, is flourishing in high school.
Children file into a line to be greeted by a volunteer before class time at the Pasos Pequeñitos child care center in Tegucigalpa, Honduras in July 2022.
The center, open from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. for children 15 months of age and up, offers education in line with Honduras’ national curriculum, health care benefits, and multiple meals and snacks daily.
In addition, Pasos Pequeñitos provides monthly workshops on topics including health and family planning, and weekly entertainment programming, like Zumba classes, to help parents bond with their children.
“The kids that come here, their most stable source of food and nutrition comes from this program. Very often in their homes, they might eat once a day,” Stephen O'Mahony, the national director of Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH) Honduras, the nonprofit that oversees the center, told Global Citizen.
Most parents whose children are in the center make $2 to $3 USD per day. Digyana Hernández, the coordinator of Pasos Pequeñitos, told Global Citizen that most of the children live in small rooms with many other people, and without dedicated spaces to play, nap, or eat, despite their parents working hard everyday to provide for them.
For example, one child currently attending the center lives with their single father in an industrial space used by carpenters to reupholster furniture.
“Another challenge is that many of the neighborhoods [our clients] are based in are very dangerous and they have many gangs,” Hernández said. “When we do some home visits there, we just go and [pray for safety].”
Because many of the children come from challenging environments, they sometimes exhibit behavioral issues at first, such as hitting others. However, within weeks at the center, the staff says that the children’s behaviors begin to change to reflect the more peaceful setting they’ve come to know for the majority of their day.
Hernández, who still keeps in touch with all the children who have moved on from the care center, describes her role as more of a family member than a caregiver.
“When we get a kid, it’s not just a kid. We [staff members] are like an aunty for them,” she said.
A volunteer speaks with a boy during mid-day playtime at the Pasos Pequeñitos child care center in Tegucigalpa.
According to the Honduran National Institute of Statistics, 23% of the Honduran population was raised by single mothers.
In 2019, when NPH Honduras surveyed 1,500 households in Mata de Platano and Pueblo Nuevo, outside the country’s capital, they found that 80% of mothers gave birth to their first child when they were under 21 years of age, and an additional 40% were under 18.
Through Pasos Pequeñitos, some parents have returned to middle school or high school, while others have gone on to post-secondary institutes, graduating as teachers, lawyers, and engineers.
“We try to work with them to keep them moving [so they don’t think]: ‘I'm poor. I don't have any more choices,’” Hernández said. “[We tell them]: ‘You can do it. Keep going.’ That’s how we work with our families.”
While continuing their studies or pursuing higher education is ideal, it isn’t possible for all single parents, which is why the center admits children on a case-by-case basis.
(L) A mother helps her son with his shoes and t-shirt as she arrives for pickup at the Pasos Pequeñitos child care center. (R) A mother, her daughter, and her son stand for a portrait outside of Pasos Pequeñitos.
According to Hernández, single mothers often work casual jobs, such as cleaning homes or selling fruit on the street, enabling them to “just survive day by day” financially, rather than earn consistent income from a full-time job.
Because of this, they may not be able to attend school, but having their children at the center still provides an economic benefit, O'Mahony explained.
One of the single mothers, Mariela, whose children receive care from the center, is a fruit seller. While she is likely to remain in this informal work and has no plans to return to school, the center provides her with the opportunity to earn money during the day as her children are being care for, which means she can afford to purchase milk, diapers, and other essentials at a crucial time in her child's development.
The center, operating under NPH Honduras, is predominantly funded through donations from Germany and Austria. However, parents contribute a nominal amount based on their financial situation to participate in the program — typically the equivalent of around $1 to $17 USD per month.
Due to limited resources, the center is only able to care for a maximum of 20 children at a time.
The kids climb and play at a park next to Pasos Pequeñitos in Tegucigalpa.
Pasos Pequeñitos operates using the Montessori method, an educational approach which involves child-led learning and encourages independence from a young age. Comparable child care centers in Honduras cost approximately $160 to $200 USD per month, making them out of reach for low-income single parents.
According to the World Bank, 350 million children below primary-school-entry age lack access to child care. Accessing this care would not only improve child outcomes and help them reach their potential, but it would also increase women’s employment and drive inclusive economic growth — which is especially needed now to recover from the pandemic.
For single parents and the children in Honduras who do not have access to quality, affordable child care, expanding the accessibility of centers like Pasos Pequeñitos “could change the entire country,” O'Mahony says.
He adds that increased access would make a fundamental difference to many households’ economic situations and the overall well-being of children and their parents.
Enabling single parents to continue their studies or work while their children “are in a place where they're safe, and they're cared for, and they're loved … that [is priceless],” he says.
A father helps his daughter put her shoes on before heading home from Pasos Pequeñitos in Tegucigalpa.
Investing in quality child care is one of the best ways a country can work towards equality, improve human capital, and put women at the forefront of economic growth. The World Bank’s new Childcare Incentive Fund, which will assess proposals for new projects in the coming months, focuses on providing flexible funding to governments to support child care initiatives.
Global Citizen’s Care Allowance content series aims to highlight initiatives that would be the ideal pilots for this kind of funding, stressing the importance of quality, affordable child care in low- and middle-income countries around the world.
Disclosure: This series was made possible with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Each piece was produced with full editorial independence.