Organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota and Starfish Academy offer free childcare and hotel stays for those on the front lines.
Every day, Jennifer “Lacy” Mitchell wakes at 5:45 a.m., takes her morning shower and drives 45 minutes on near-empty roads to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County.
Once there, her 6-year-old daughter, Callie, puts on her mask and has her temperature taken. If it is below 100.4 degrees, she is welcomed inside. Mitchell then drives to the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office headquarters, where she works as a human resource specialist.
At 5 p.m., she wipes down her desk, picks up Callie without hugging her and drives home. There, she immediately takes her second shower of the day before enjoying the evening with her daughter.
It’s a strange routine, but it’s become Mitchell’s new normal. A normal for which she’s grateful.
Mitchell, a single mom, has relied on day care and after-school care services under normal circumstances. When the COVID-19 pandemic started shutting businesses down, she wasn’t sure how she would manage.
“It was worrisome, especially for work,” she said. “They just didn’t know what was going to happen. You weren’t really sure what essential was at that point, especially when it came to day care. … If you think: ‘OK, schools are shut down. Day cares are going to be shut down. What am I going to do for work?’”
She’s grateful to the Boys & Girls Clubs for offering day care services for Callie and the children of other essential workers during the pandemic. Several organizations and business owners are offering their services for free or lower prices as they continue to work through the COVID-19 outbreak.
The state of Florida is providing free child care for essential employes for up to three months.
The Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County, a state-funded nonprofit, financially supports child care centers in the county. Community Outreach Coordinator Ana McClendon said the coalition quickly identified Sarasota Memorial Hospital and the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office as two organizations that would have demand for daily child care.
“So we knew all along that centers were going to close, and this was going to really shutter, at least temporarily, the [child care] industry,” McClendon said. “So we were sort of rolling up our sleeves figuring out what we could do to begin with right away.”
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County opened the doors of the Lee Wetherington Club on April 8 for children ages 6-12 of first responders and physicians. Callie, along with 30 other children, attend day care at the club.
Instead of the typical 350 children found at the club each day, President Bill Sadlo said social distancing guidelines allows up to 90 children, in groups of nine kids with one staff member for each group. Staff members and children have their temperatures checked upon arrival.
“These are families that are on the frontlines and know what we’re dealing with,” Sadlo said. “So they have sent their kids with masks.”
Infants starting at six weeks old and ending at a year old are welcome at The Starfish Academy at The Florida Center beginning April 20.
Though the Academy is typically for preschool students and children with special needs, Principal Susan Carney said staff was unable to set up a system that would be safe for children of all ages so it will focus on infants during the crisis.
There are 32 spots available between the academy’s two campuses in North Port and Sarasota. Two teachers will watch over four children per classroom and will continue regular learning with lesson plans as set by the Florida Early Learning and Developmental Standards.
Carney said the students will be properly spaced, and will only be exposed to the same two teachers daily. Although they have to take extra precautions, Carney said the teachers are happy to do their part.
“I think that at this time, everybody wants to help,” Carney said. “... We’re not healthcare providers so we can’t help in that way, but we are educators, so we can help this way. This is the way that we really want to say thank you and pay back to the community and just be part of a team to help everybody at this point.”
In addition to child care, those on the frontlines also are getting a welcome assist from the local hospitality industry. Several county hotels and resorts are offering free rooms to first responders or their families who might have been affected by the virus.
One such property is Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites.
“These guys put their lives on the line to protect our families, and my concern is that there’s not being enough done to protect theirs,” Beachside Management Owner Mike Holderness said. “It’s our duty. It’s our duty to these guys and gals who are out there doing their job to make sure we’re safe.”
Even though officers have implemented new guidelines, such as wearing gloves and issuing criminal citations instead of arresting people when possible, Sarasota Police Department Chief Bernadette DiPino said there are a few officers who could have been potentially exposed. They have been placed in hotels to keep from exposing family members.
“It’s already a dangerous enough job, and now we have an invisible enemy that you don’t have to have the symptoms of it, but you could be exposed to just because you’re doing your job,” DiPino said. “However, not one officer has said, ‘I don’t want to work’ or ‘I’m not willing to do this.’ They all come into work, and they’re all dedicated.”
And while child care and a place to stay have been offered, others don’t want essential workers to go hungry either.
Local Realtors Brian Loebker and Brandy Coffey organized a “Feed A Healthcare Hero” initiative providing food for health care workers on the job. The duo have brought together more than 80 Realtors — all deemed essential workers by the Florida government — to deliver breakfast, lunch and dinner from more than 50 restaurants to workers at six area hospitals. They have raised more than $20,000 for the campaign so far.
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