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YMCAs, foundations offer child care to first responders

Many Ys are offering reduced prices for their child care based on financial need

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YMCAs across the country are stepping up to help by offering safe and affordable child care for the families of police officers, firefighters, paramedics, EMTs and healthcare professionals.

Photo/YMCA of Greater Cincinnati

Finding child care right now can be a huge challenge for first responders. YMCAs across the country are stepping up to help by offering safe and affordable child care for the families of police officers, firefighters, paramedics, EMTs and healthcare professionals.

Ryan O’Malley, director of public relations and reputation for YMCA of the USA, says the decision to offer child care services grew naturally out of the Y’s mission of service to communities and its commitment to youth development: “When many local Ys saw that they could help out the families of first responders and healthcare workers in their communities – families that are serving on the front lines of this crisis – they stepped in to support them with child care programming.”

Shared challenges and a community solution

Daycares in many states have closed due to COVID-19. Elderly parents or other relatives with underlying health conditions, who might normally have picked up the slack, are now called on to self-isolate; it’s too risky to have them around the children, who might be carrying the coronavirus while showing no symptoms. The kind offers of friends, or hastily made temporary arrangements, may have sufficed for the short-term. But as the weeks drag on, worry over who’s going to watch the kids can add stress to an already incredibly stressful situation.

Local Ys are facing their own challenges, as they’ve been forced to shut down normal operations to protect the public, and the fees those operations normally generate have dried up.

One service Ys are able to continue is child care, putting in place social distancing practices, such as keeping the children in small groups and limiting the personnel who can supervise them, and instituting health screening requirements for staff and children. In addition to serving a crucial need for first responders and medical personnel, providing child care offers a way for these facilities to recoup needed funds to go toward the expenses the Y still has to meet.

Local child care availability, cost, and hours

By the week of April 10, roughly 800 Ys had opened child care centers serving healthcare workers and first responders. Some operate as daycares during hours set locally. Others stay open overnight to serve first responders who work the graveyard shift.

Age limits are also determined by the local Y. Some YMCA child care programs require advance enrollment; some only ask that a spot be reserved the day before it is needed.

To find out if your area Y is offering child care for the families of first providers, O’Malley suggests you check your local Y’s website. Most have a special banner headline at the top with COVID-19 news and resources, and many have a separate clickable tile for information on emergency child care for first responders and medical professionals.

In Madison, Wisconsin, Scott Shoemaker, senior director of marketing and communications for the YMCA of Dane County, told Lexipol that as of April 16, “We have about 35 kids spread out at two sites this week. We can add more at each site, and we have a third YMCA facility that can be made available if needed.”

“At this moment in time,” Shoemaker said, “the COVID-19 curve seems to be flattening – fingers crossed – so we’re not expecting an increase in demand. But as you know, the situation changes by the day, so we’re pretty turnkey in our preparation if the need to expand arises.”

The other challenge – affordability of care

How to pay for child care is another concern for many first responders, especially right now.

To answer this challenge, many participating Ys are offering reduced prices for their child care based on financial need, sometimes partnering with local charitable funding organizations to offer those who qualify scholarships or other cost assistance.

One such local partnership exists between the Stevens Point Area YMCA, which serves Portage County, Wisconsin, and the Community Foundation of Central Wisconsin. Through the Portage County COVID-19 Relief Fund, the foundation, in partnership with the United Way of Portage County, is providing financial assistance to the Stevens Point YMCA to help parents defray child care costs.

The Stevens Point Area YMCA’s child care program, which serves infants through age 12, has chosen to remain open throughout the pandemic to provide child care services for police, firefighters, EMS providers, healthcare workers and other essential workers.

The program still has openings, according to Erin Andrews, executive director of the Community Foundation of Central Wisconsin: “The Stevens Point Y is not yet at capacity,” Andrews said, “Our area, which is smaller, hasn’t been hit hard yet.”

Community foundation aid is usually used for emergencies, such as tornadoes or floods. “We never imagined it would be needed for a pandemic,” Andrews said. But when the “safer-at-home” orders began to go out, and the foundation began to ask what critical needs there would be in the community, child care was a critical one for those workers the community is depending on the most, she noted.

“One of the things we’ve learned is that some child care centers have closed but the parents have to continue paying the center in order to hold their spot,” Andrews said, adding that parents will do this even though there’s no guarantee the center will ever reopen, because quality child care is at such a premium. Also, older kids who’d normally be in school now need paid supervision, which also puts a new strain on a family’s budget.

YMCA ‘Stay With Us’ campaign

“With all membership facilities closed, Ys, like many other organizations, are experiencing great financial hardship during this crisis,” YMCA of the USA’s O’Malley told Lexipol. “To encourage people to support Ys, especially those that are providing emergency services right now, there is a grassroots ‘Stay With Us’ campaign taking place on social media.”

Jan Gaughan is an editor on Lexipol’s Editorial Services team and lives in Arkansas.