Bob Sanborn

For most children, the past year has been one in which they haven’t seen many of their friends, or played on their favorite sports team, or had lunch with their parents in the cafeteria.

Children are some of the hardest hit by pandemic closures, including nearly a year without any sort of traditional, in-person schooling.

But for at-risk children and low-income families, it’s even worse. With reduced access to child care, cities like El Paso are child care deserts, with a lack of subsidized, quality, early education child care.

And it’s hard for the economy to rebound, for people to return to work, if they don’t have to have a safe place for their children. 

Some groups and nonprofits are working overtime to serve the needs of children. Robert Sanborn, CEO of Children At Risk, said part of his job is to help identify what Texas children need to be successful.

The nonprofit works on data, research and policy advocacy in Texas to create agendas and partnerships that advocate for children. 

Sanborn is based in Houston, and Children at Risk has offices in Dallas, Houston and Fort Worth. Sanborn said his work regularly brings him to El Paso, and the group has partnerships with the YWCA El Paso Del Norte Region and United Way of El Paso.

Children at Risk last week also announced that it had appointed El Pasoan Anna Alemán as major gifts officer for El Paso and the West Texas region. 

Sanborn, 61, grew up in Puerto Rico and was a first-generation college student. He received his bachelor’s from Florida State University and has a doctorate in education from Columbia University. 

He previously worked at Rice University in Houston, and went to Senegal and North Africa with the Peace Corps. 

Sanborn spent some time talking to El Paso Inc. about how the pandemic has impacted the work of Children at Risk, what the group is eyeing in the Texas Legislature and what spot in El Paso has the best enchilada sauce. 

Q: Children at Risk has done research into child care deserts. How does that look in El Paso and how’s it evolving when schools are closed?

El Paso was a significant city in regards to child care deserts. Texas overall has a lot of child care deserts, which is a lack of subsidized, quality, early education child care. 

We know that for kids to get ahead, the biggest bang for your buck is going to be high-quality early education.

In El Paso, we saw great places like the YWCA and a couple of other places that were doing extraordinary work, but there just aren’t enough of those places. With the pandemic we’re seeing even fewer. 

So many places had to close down. The kids weren’t there so the business suffered. Subsidies didn’t follow. It became a business model that was very difficult.

When we talk about returning to a robust economy, the thing that a lot of legislators forget is that for people to get back to work, they have to have a place to keep their kids. When these places have closed down, that desert has become even drier. 

It’s much tougher for families to find these quality places because they’re closing down. It will get better, we just don’t know if it’s going to get better fast enough to get the economy where it needs to be. 

Schools everywhere are having trouble tracking where kids went. Sometimes it’s as simple as parents are afraid, and may not have all the info. 

Q: Is there any missing data or parts to trying to figure out how to help at-risk children during the pandemic? For example, there are kids who live in Juárez who have been unable to attend school in El Paso. 

School districts all across the state are having trouble tracking where kids went. We know there are large numbers of “lost kids.” 

Sometimes it’s really as simple as parents are afraid, and they don’t want to send their kids to school. They may not have all the information, and in their mind they may be like, “Do I want my kid to fall behind for a whole school year or two, or would I rather have a sick kid?” 

They’d rather have a kid who’s fallen behind, and it’s a stark choice. 

For our youngest kids, we know there’s practically no risk in sending those kids. I don’t think there’s been a lot of information at school districts, and information changes a lot. 

Some are adjusting, saying let’s bring back pre-K through second grade. Others haven’t. There are still those lost kids and districts are working hard to get those.

I also think there are other areas of lost data, like knowing which populations want to be vaccinated and which will be much more hesitant. 

We did a press conference in El Paso where we talked about this idea that the immigrant, uninsured and Latino population, are three groups that are quite hesitant about getting vaccinated. That’s going to hinder us getting families back into normal routines.

With COVID, there are so many unknowns. Going into COVID, maybe some people thought we’d be able to rethink things. People may have been thinking but we haven’t seen a lot of action, in terms of our state legislature and government officials in terms of doing the right things for our kids.

Q: How does the work of Children at Risk impact children in El Paso?

We spend a lot of time paying attention to the border region. From El Paso to Brownsville, you see a lot of kids growing up in low-income families, and families very unique to America. These are families that oftentimes have family members across the border.

A number of years ago, we were in Austin for the state legislature. The USDA came to us and said Texas isn’t really using all the money we get to feed kids. We went to the state legislature and said why don’t we mandate a school with over 80% of kids that are low income, that they do universal school breakfast? 

The state legislature at the time said no, we want kids to be having breakfast with their families. We tried to say, well, a lot of kids aren’t getting breakfast at home. We have to make sure they’re getting breakfast for academic success. 

It didn’t happen. But the next year we sort of reframed it, and said it represents a $350 million investment in Texas agriculture. By presenting it as an economic issue, our state legislature was much more interested, and in one fell swoop we got this piece of legislation passed and one million kids now had access to free breakfast. 

That’s the type of work we like to do, stuff that’s systems-level work, state law. We did that with pre-K, and took part in the lege in the last session to make sure we had full-day quality pre-K for every low-income child in Texas.

Q: What are you looking for in this legislative session? 

Certainly with COVID, we’re doing a lot of work to make sure that COVID stays on the mind of our legislators and sort of understanding it’s put a lot of kids behind the eight ball. 

We’re doing a lot around racial equity, and making sure we can look around this special lens of racial equity.

We have a lot of early education legislation. We’re making sure we have quality education, subsidized early education for low-income families. That’s basically looking at day care. 

We’re a big part of the Texas Rising Star, which is the state quality control used at a lot of day care centers, and trying to make that stronger.

We’re doing a lot of work with chronic absenteeism. With COVID we’ve seen a lot of these kids just go missing. We’re trying to put a lot more pressure on the state to help schools find out where those kids are going, and making sure they can be successful as well. 

We’re also playing defense on things like pre-K and kindergarten, making sure things like that don’t get taken away. After making sure we had pre-K for everyone, we know that people from the state have said maybe we shouldn’t fund pre-K, a lot of those kids didn’t show up.

A lot of that was COVID-related and has nothing to do with not needing pre-K in our schools.

We’re also doing a lot of work around human trafficking, making sure we have more reforms to the foster system, making sure we’re doing penalties for those that buy young girls and boys. 

Q: What do you do at Children at Risk, and how’d you get into this line of work?

We do research and advocacy. We work all over the state of Texas and with other nonprofits. The key thing is to identify what will help Texas kids be successful. 

Sixty percent of all the kids in the state of Texas are classified as coming from low-income families. That means we have to do our very best and be creative to make sure every one of those kids at least has the opportunity to be successful. 

I grew up in Puerto Rico, and was a first-generation college student, the first one in my family to go to college. I grew up in a low-income family myself. I moved to Texas after graduating from Columbia with my doctorate, and came to work at Rice. 

What I realized after working at Columbia and Rice, was I liked working with those first-generation college students most, those who had a background like mine. Eventually, it took me to work at Children at Risk, where we’re doing that every day as a team. 

Q: How has the pandemic shaped your work?

It’s had a huge impact. Starting in March, we had offices all over the state. We all started working from home. It’s been interesting, because we’re now in Zoom meetings. Whether you live in El Paso or San Antonio or Dallas, you could all be in Houston for that matter because we’re on Zoom.

Where it’s worked for us is in our collaborative work. I live in Houston, and would go out to El Paso or Amarillo or San Antonio a couple of times a year. Now I can be on a Zoom call with Sylvia Acosta at the YWCA a couple of times a week. 

These are people we see on a regular basis, and Zoom makes it easier for us to have ongoing relationships all over the state.

Right after COVID hit we created the Texas Family Leadership Council. The idea was to bring nonprofit leaders who work with children together on a weekly basis. We would bring in an infectious disease expert and would talk about what was happening with COVID. For nonprofit leaders to be able to hear from a primary source, a physician or researcher, has been really valuable.

It’s also helped us as we’ve developed a legislative agenda for this session, watched what’s going on in schools. We were part of the conversation about whether schools should stay open or closed, about how so many students have fallen behind. 

In my personal life, I just don’t have as many happy hours as I used to. They’re only at home. I think I’m just super lucky. There are so many people that have been adversely affected by this, whether it’s the loss of life in the family or the loss of a job. 

Q: What do you enjoy doing when you come to El Paso? 

I love H&H Car Wash. It’s just fantastic. The sauce they put on the enchiladas is some of the best I’ve ever had. I love eating in El Paso.

I’ve never done it, but would love to go to a Chihuahuas baseball game. Visiting with friends, eating, have been some of my great pastimes. 

I love the architecture at UTEP. I think it’s so beautiful and unique. I really love the spirit of El Paso. It has such a wonderful relationship with Juárez, and are proud to have that sister relationship.

There’s a lot of civic pride in El Paso, which I really love as well.

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