On the surface, everything seems just fine at the Radcliffe Learning Center for preschool children in Bucks County's Bristol Borough.

Under the supervision of 15 staffers yesterday, 80 children at the center, a former senior-citizen home in a quiet, working-class neighborhood, played games and listened as stories were read to them.

But owner Christine DeLuca heads at an ever-faster pace toward impending ruin, as Pennsylvania's budget stalemate wears on. With two-thirds of her income coming from Harrisburg child-care subsidies that won't be sent out until a new budget is signed, she says she can't keep caring for children who are not being paid for too much longer.

DeLuca said she had gone through $90,000 in personal savings to avoid having to turn the children away.

Starting last week, the staff went on 20 hours' pay, with most volunteering to work an additional 20 hours. So far, they are sticking with the center, DeLuca said, but "they can't work for free for very long; sooner or later, they'll have to leave."

Utility bills have gone unpaid. A food contract with the Philadelphia archdiocese has been canceled, with parents chipping in to help supply the food that is still served.

A bank said it would defer mortgage payments on the center for three months, DeLuca said. "We're on month four now."

The parents of state-funded children now have to pick their children up by 3 p.m., because of staff cutbacks; normally, they would be able to come as late as 6 p.m.

About half the center's children should be getting most or all of their care paid for through state funding. Instead, since July 1, DeLuca has been caring for those children, from at-risk, low-income families, without any state compensation. Normally, she said, she would have gotten about $40,000 each month for them.

Their parents "come into my office every day and say, 'Please keep taking my child; I can't lose my job,' " DeLuca said yesterday. "I could have run the center off my private-pay children, but I can't do that to the families" of the other children.

DeLuca is not alone. Providers who care for about 30,000 Pennsylvania children in state-subsidized programs are taking out loans, using money out of retirement accounts, going without pay, drawing down money put aside for facility improvements, and doing without new supplies.

In a Chester County center, "we tell the children that the broken crayons work just as well as new ones," said JoAnna Collins, one of the owners.

Around the state, child-care operators "are stretched to the limit - they are doing everything they can, but a lot of them have laid off staff and had to turn away children," said Kelly Swanson, communications and policy director for Pennsylvania Keys, a nonprofit that works on early education issues with state agencies and child-care organizations. "They are trying so hard to keep helping the children, but that is getting more and more difficult."

According to a survey Swanson took in early September, close to 9,000 children statewide are going without early childhood education or child-care services they would otherwise have been getting, and more than 1,000 staff had been laid off. As of late September, at least 15 child-care providers around the state have closed their doors until the budget money starts flowing again, said state welfare department spokeswoman Stacey Witalec; five of those are in Philadelphia.

At the Radcliffe Center, DeLuca is not the only one hurting; parents are also sharing the pain. Last week, the center asked those whose children were in the state subsidy programs to start paying $84 a week, much more than they would normally pay but still only a fraction of what the state would be sending if the budget were in place. The families "work for close to minimum wage themselves, so they can't afford private child care," DeLuca said. "And they can't afford to pay me for very long either."

Bristol Borough resident Shawna Bell, the mother of two children at the center and an Internet marketing production assistant, said that without Radcliffe, "I would probably end up on welfare. . . . I don't know where my children would be."

Though DeLuca expects her business to regain its equilibrium once state funding comes in, she will not know for sure how much she will be reimbursed until a budget is actually signed.

"I think she's courageous," Bell said. "A lot of people would not have [kept the center open]. She's one of the heroes you don't hear about that often."

Another parent, Bristol Township resident Sandra Flesch, the mother of two children at the center, said, "If I can't pay their day care, then I have to keep them at home, and I'll lose my job" in customer service. "Something has to be done."

Meanwhile, she said, "thank God for Ms. Christine."

Contact staff writer Dan Hardy at 610-313-8134 or at dhardy@phillynews.com.