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California child-care center helps children, parents, senior citizens

Six years ago Kathryn Pyle, a veteran of 27 years of teaching kindergarten and first grade in the Los Angeles schools, went to a workshop on child abuse in her retirement home of Morro Bay, Calif. She learned that abuse sometimes emerges in homes where parents have few options for respite from child-care duties -- either they can't afford baby sitters or preschool, or they're cut off from family and friends with whom they might share child-care responsibilities.

The description, she thought, fitted many mothers in her new community. ``There was no free child care or preschool available,'' says Mrs. Pyle, ``and we have a lot of minimum-wage work and high mobility in this area.''

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To remedy this, Mrs. Pyle joined with the local branch of Church Women United and started ``Tuesday Time Out'' -- a morning program run by five churches at a local Presbyterian church. Using senior citizen volunteers (``we're almost all grandmothers''), the group offers stories, crafts, outdoor play, a snack, and a room stocked with Big Wheels that's ``always full,'' she says.

Word of the program spread. Mrs. Pyle has had up to 87 enrollees for the 40 slots available, everything from newborns to four-year-olds. ``Many of our children go on to preschool,'' she says, ``but there's nothing available for infants here.''

She suspects that the people who benefit most from this program are the senior citizens who run it. ``I never have any trouble getting volunteers,'' she says. ``We have a lot of retired folks in this community, and some of them are kind of looking for an outlet.''

Not all of them carry years of child-care experience, she notes. ``We have a single woman I see sometimes just holding the children. The love she gets from them -- oh, my!'' The children, many of them younger siblings of her original group, ``sometimes call us grandmother, and we see them that way [as grandchildren],'' she says.

The present police officer in charge of child-abuse cases in the community was not aware of any direct connection between this program and the decline in abuse cases reported, but the numbers are enticing. At the time Mrs. Pyle started the program, she says, 137 cases were cited in the county. So far this year, there have been 10, the officer says.

``We don't talk about child abuse, and I'm sure many of the mothers aren't even aware that it was in the back of my mind when we started this,'' says Mrs. Pyle, who says she has had only one occasion to talk with a parent on this subject since the center opened. ``We just want to offer them a little relief.''

The program, which runs from September to June, would work well in other communities, Mrs. Pyle thinks, ``particularly in the churches. There's so much talk out now on abuse, but I think most people see the church as a nice, safe place.'' Other churches in the area have already copied her model.

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