Candace McWhirter camped outside Howard Community College at 5 a.m. this week, waiting for the doors to open so she could get in line.
Not for class registration. For child-care sign-up.
The Columbia resident was taking no chances that her 5-month-old daughter would be without day care this semester. That's why she showed up Monday three hours before registration began for HCC's new child-care center.
College students with young children consider day care essential, whether it's provided by a relative or an employee. But finding the right place - or any place at all - can be difficult.
"I got one of the child-care guides to the area and I called a bunch of numbers," McWhirter said. "And no one was taking infants."
HCC officials hope the on-campus option will help.
One year after a campus survey showed overwhelming support for the proposal, the Children's Learning Center will open in mid-October - starting with room for 55 to 75 children, depending on whether parents choose five days a week or fewer.
There was plenty of room left for children ages 2 to 4. By yesterday afternoon, about 20 percent of the center's slots were filled. Three spots were reserved for infants, and those were snatched up within two hours the first day.
McWhirter suspected that there would be a rush, and she could not help worrying that she would miss out.
In the end, she was the first to sign up - followed by Cristina Grimes, an Ellicott City student with a 6-month-old son.
Grimes said she also got in early - at 6:30 a.m. - to "prepare for battle."
"It's such a relief," McWhirter said, minutes after registering, holding her daughter. "I haven't been able to concentrate on anything all weekend - I haven't slept - because I knew this was my last chance."
HCC's rates range from $220 a week for infants to $120 for four weeks of morning care for 3- and 4-year-olds. Officials expect that most students will be eligible for grants and state funds that will lower the costs.
Registration for students, who get priority, started Monday and runs through Sept. 15. Campus employees can sign up the week after that, and then - if space is available - anyone can register.
"We've had a lot of calls from the community, but we're offering it to students first," said the center's director, Kim Pins. "Most of our students not only go to school, but also hold down jobs - and raise children. We're trying to ease that.
"If they don't have child care, they can't go to school," Pins said.
Eventually, students in HCC's early-education program will use the center, too. They'll learn about children firsthand and by watching from observation booths built into the center.
Parents registering their children can watch construction on the 12,800-square-foot building from a window in Pins' temporary office.
The center, not far from the physical education building, is within walking distance of the main campus.
McWhirter is glad her daughter will be near as she pursues her nursing degree.
"It's hard when you have to put a child this age in day care, and it's nice when it's so close," she said. "The time I spend with her will be [better] quality time. I just can't tell you how happy I am."