Emergency child care options to be provided for essential workers

SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN — When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer handed down her executive order for “Stay at home, stay safe” on Monday, regional organizations were mobilized to assist those deemed as essential workers.

Schools have been closed since March 16 in Michigan, and parents have faced challenges finding childcare options for both small and school-aged children as they faced financial and availability challenges. The Berrien Regional Education Services Agency, Lewis Cass and Van Buren intermediate school districts sprang into action with the latest stay at home order to provide resources for essential workers and their children.

Essential workers are being encouraged by organizers to go to helpmegrow-mi.org/essential to sign up to find disaster relief childcare. The website is meant to be an easy access to all of the work going on in the background to make sure resources are being put together from across the region.

“[Gov. Whitmer] detailed that the ISDs would be the place to help partner with local organizations to provide a space and emergency child care,” said Chris Whitmire, director of early childhood education with the Lewis Cass ISD. “During that time, we received that executive order, the RESAs banded together, and we decided that southwestern Michigan needed to have one voice with this.”

Together, Lewis Cass ISD, Berrien RESA and Van Buren ISD have created partnerships with the United Way of Southwest Michigan, The YMCA of Greater Michiana and others, and have found ways to begin pooling their resources together for essential workers in the area who are seeking childcare.

“We are all doing this so we have good, solid places for the essential workers to have safe and high-quality childcare during this time,” Whitmire said.

Zech Hoyt, director of early childhood education at the YMCA of Greater Michiana, is working with the Benton Harbor/St. Joseph YMCA to create a childcare center.

“We are currently working with Spectrum Lakeland to set up for their employees, their essential workers,” Hoyt said. “When that kicks in, we will have other families that are interested.”

“We are waiting for that higher priority need to kick in so we can be efficient and effective with our care,” he said. “We have our first team ready to roll. The Benton Harbor/St. Joseph location will be our first site with the Y.”

Hoyt praised the Lewis Cass ISD, Berrien RESA and Van Buren ISD for coming together quickly to address the need.

The website and its resources are not just for medical workers. Essential workers defined by Gov. Whitmer’s executive order 2020-16 included directives for a “disaster relief childcare center,” which the order said “must give priority for its services to the essential workforce, but may also provide childcare services to the general public as space and governing rules and/or orders permits.”

The “essential workforce” was defined to include “health care workers, home health workers, direct care workers, emergency medical service providers, first responders, law enforcement personnel, sanitation workers, childcare workers (including any employees acting as childcare workers in essential workforce childcare centers), personnel providing correctional services, postal workers, public health employees, key government employees, court personnel and others providing critical infrastructure to Michiganders.”

The disaster relief childcare for essential workers is not just being organized through the YMCA centers in the two counties, but is mobilizing to find childcare providers who are able to accept essential workers’ children into their care as well. childcare is not provided for free, but the resources are being made available to provide options to essential workers that they can take advantage of.

Essential workers in need of childcare options are encouraged to reach out on helpmegrow-mi.org/essential, as well as licensed childcare providers, to help grow the network of support.

“We have the skills to mobilize with all the partners we have already talked about,” Hoyt said of the efforts organized currently and in the process of being organized. “We’re in a good spot to expand as needed, or move as needed.”

“In my opinion, when you’re in a cultural disruption like we’re experiencing right now,” Whitmire added, “as much as there is this uncomfortable and uneasiness, there are also these silver linings that come from this — the greatness that comes from people that step up and are courageous and do things that are beyond the norm to reach out to the community.”

Hoyt agreed that the support coming from the regional ISDs, RESAs, organizations and communities was commendable.

“I think my appeal, and it’s been the appeal through this, is that we’ve got great institutions aligning and working together, but other people that have passion or interest, if they are interested in assisting, whether it’s financial, support advocacy, connecting, obviously,” Hoyt said, “we are available.”