VA employees put the care in childcare - VA Salt Lake City Health Care System
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VA employees put the care in childcare

A boy sits in the auditorium that is being used for childcare

Armed with juice, video games, and plenty of time on his hands, Matthew, 12, makes the most of a trying situation (photo by Tod Peterson).

By T.S. Jarmusz
Wednesday, April 8, 2020

As the world grinds to a halt amid the Coronavirus, it’s the little things in life that are making the greatest difference.

A smile. A warm gesture. A note of thanks. 

At the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System, it’s knowing that family comes first.

The closure of area schools caught many parents off guard, leaving some with no options for childcare. The move pitted staff who couldn’t telework between caring for their children or caring for Veterans.

“There was a need for the employees,” VA SLCHCS acting assistant director Belinda 'Belle' Karabatsos said. “They had reached out and were telling Shella (Stovall, director) that they really wanted to help support us during the COVID crisis but were having childcare issues due to schools closing.” 

Amid the uncertainty, VA employees did what they do best: stepped up to help.

After working through the challenges of finding a good site and the right staff to provide a positive experience for the children, within a matter of days, Karabatsos, Melissa Hobbs chief of quality management, and Katie Schatz banded together to create a free onsite emergency childcare center.

Colorful chalk sidewalk art

Art scrawled on the sidewalk within eyeshot of where the medical center will begin accepting a surge of COVID-19 patients lends a splash of color – and hope – to an otherwise gray campus (photo by Tod Peterson).

Services began Wednesday and will run from 6:45 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. They are available to VA employees who cannot telework and are tasked to care for patients. We will continue to provide the service as long as there is a need, Karabatsos said, adding that, parents need to provide a sack lunch for their child.

Disney movies now play in the empty auditorium once used for performances and high-level meetings. And in an almost eerie scene, cloth draped over the seats serves as an ever-present reminder for children to practice social distancing.

But what the daycare lacks in refinement it makes up for with heart. Children still play, eat, and learn; proof that even as the world slows, life goes on.

“I like it here – it’s quiet – no other kids around,” Matthew, 12, and the first child to attend said. “We ate, had snacks, and I raced cars down the hallway. I had lots of fun racing cars. I could do that all day.”

Within view of where the surge of COVID19 patients will be triaged, Matthew’s art rests scrawled on the sidewalk. The cheery hearts and faces lend color to an otherwise gray campus.

Cloth draped over seats in the auditorium

The medical center’s auditorium which, in better days, housed entertainers and high-level meetings, now serves as makeshift daycare for the children of employees working the front lines (photo by Tod Peterson).

While only a few children attend the daycare now, in the coming weeks there will be more. The daycare can house up to 20 children, should there be a need, Karabatsos said.

For now, staffing is not an issue. Many of the all-employee staff help the daycare, volunteering to work before or after shifts.

“I think it’s been a great experience,” Karabatsos said. “The folks that are volunteering to help out at a daycare, it’s not something they normally do for the most part. For them to put their own needs aside is phenomenal.”

The effort wasn’t lost on employees working the front lines, who were grateful to the VA for putting family first.

“Parents that have brought their children have really enjoyed it,” Karabatsos said. “They are glad to know that their kids are being taken care of and close by. I think it’s more comforting for them.”

While it’s a small gesture, it’s one less worry; one less uncertainty in an uncertain world. And it goes to shows that even amongst the darkest of times if we stick together, there’s always a glimmer of hope.

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