Coalition coordinates aid to child care centers

Stakeholders aligning efforts to support ‘unsung heroes’ in Kent County during the pandemic.
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The team coordinates efforts and aligns activities that support Kent County child care providers and families who work in essential industries and need child care during COVID-19. Credit iStock

(As seen on WZZM 13 TV) A team of West Michigan organizations is working to provide resources and support for a group of frontline workers putting their health and families at risk to help others during COVID-19: child care providers.

For other critical infrastructure employees to continue doing their essential in-person jobs during the pandemic, a certain number of home-based providers and child care centers — a segment of the economy that already was struggling to stay afloat before this crisis — need to remain open for business.

Annemarie Valdez is president and CEO of First Steps Kent, a 10-year-old nonprofit that works with community partners to advocate for and invest in the county’s early childhood system.

She and her team are “convening, gathering and aligning the work” of a new coalition formed March 20: the Kent Child Care Crisis Response Team.

The purpose of the team is to coordinate efforts and align activities that support Kent County child care providers and families who work in essential industries and need child care during COVID-19.

The team includes representatives from Camp Fire West Michigan 4C, Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative (ELNC), Great Start Collaborative, Great Start to Quality, Head Start for Kent County, KConnect, Kent County Shared Services Alliance Project, Kent ISD and Talent 2025, as well as First Steps Kent.

Valdez said these key players had already been working to address the region’s child care crisis for several years, but the pandemic sharply heightened the need for help.

The crisis response team got to work immediately to determine how many child care spaces were needed (about 800 and counting), which child care centers and in-home providers were staying open and how many kids they could accept. In many cases, providers have welcomed new children who were typically in school all day or whose regular care had closed.

After its formation, the team conducted a survey of about 85 child care centers that made clear that due to their long hours on the job, the providers were not able to make it to stores during the reduced open hours, and they weren’t included in groups that received special designated shopping hours. This meant by the time they could get to a store, they were greeted by shelves bare of critical supplies.

The Kent County Shared Services Alliance Project helped secure a bulk order of basic goods — cleaning supplies, paper products and food staples — to deliver to those child care providers who were running low, so that they could continue to follow sanitation protocols and stay in business.

Although the crisis response team did not disclose a list of child care providers that are staying open during the pandemic, First Steps Kent provided a link for parents who are essential workers to fill out an intake form if they need child care, at helpmegrow-mi.org/essential.

The organization also included comments from one provider on its website.

Ordinarily, Charlotte Lukasiewicz takes care of six infants and toddlers every day from her home-based day care in Grandville. Now, only two of those children are there on a part-time basis. But she believes she is doing her part to help during COVID-19.

“I think it’s important to be able to do what we can do and be open to help families that need it,” she told First Steps Kent. She said she is grateful to everyone supporting child care workers during this crisis, and she believes one of the best ways to do so is to follow orders and stay home if you don’t need to be out.

Valdez said she is calling child care workers “unsung heroes” during this time.

“I’m appreciative of all the frontline essential workers, but these folks, they say they feel invisible, and it’s because when anything is mentioned in the news media or by the governor, it (is) about everyone else but them. I think people just take it for granted that they’re there, but they are not mentioned, so they feel invisible.”

Valdez said the Kent Child Care Crisis Response Team is still working on centralizing its coordination to be able to answer community members’ questions, like, “How can I help?” or “What can I donate and where?” She said the group has ties to Heart of West Michigan United Way, so that might be one avenue they will pursue in terms of a place to direct relief dollars.

Ready by Five update

First Steps Kent is perhaps best known for its work in securing the $34 million Ready by Five Early Childhood Millage funding to provide new or expanded early childhood services in Kent County.

Valdez said the start date of the millage funds was March 2, so many of the programs were just getting up and running and hiring staff. When the stay-at-home order was issued, suddenly, they had to figure out how to train the new employees while working from home, as well as figuring out how to do virtual home visits and play-and-learns and offer social work support.

“These organizations were very clever and stepped right up to meeting the changed need,” Valdez said. “Some of those funds went for what we call a more traditional home-visiting program, but because we know that parents are home with their children, it ended up being a good thing if the home visitor gives a call or can do some FaceTime with the family. To have an activity to do with your young one is really essential right now when families are afraid, they’re dealing with a lot of information, and their stress levels are high.”

For families who are not in a socioeconomic position to have home computer or internet access, program providers are doing phone check-ins, Valdez said.

As administrator of the Ready by Five funds, First Steps Kent is working with the Kent County administrator’s office to ensure there is no stoppage in millage payments, allowing virtual programming to continue through the crisis and ensuring the expanded in-person services will be ready once life returns to normal, the organization said on its website.

“It is as important as it has always been that children are healthy, developmentally on track and ready to learn,” said Heather Boswell, COO for First Steps Kent. “We are grateful to our partners at Kent County and all the organizations that receive Ready by Five funds for their commitment to supporting our community’s youngest children during this unprecedented and difficult time.”

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