Jim O’Rourke is the executive director of the Greater Waterbury YMCA and on March 13th he was still adjusting his staff and programs to the landscape being bulldozed by the Coronavirus pandemic.

He had stopped senior fitness classes, a cancer survivor program, large gatherings in the YMCA, and closed down the gymnasium and the daycare center. Staff was being laid off (200 out of 300 employees), and he was just a few days away from closing the fitness center and pool.

Then O’Rourke’s phone rang. 

It was Reggie Eadie calling, the President and CEO of Trinity Health Of New England. O’Rourke had met Eadie during a business trip to Jacksonville, Florida, and they had made a connection.

“Reggie told me that his hospitals needed emergency child care for his health workers,” O’Rourke said, “and he asked if we could help.”

The Center For American Progress compiled state by state statistics about healthcare workers and a need for daycare and found that there are 57,566 healthcare workers in Connecticut with children under the age of 14. The report further stated that “policymakers must provide emergency child care to health personnel”, or the workers would be unable to respond to the pandemic. The report also satted that nearly one in three healthcare workers were in danger of losing their child care.

O’Rourke wanted to help, but he was unsure of the permits and licensing and paperwork needed. He got off the phone with Eadie and called Mack DeMack, Mayor Neil O’Leary’s chief of staff.

“I told Mack that the Y was in position to provide services, and then I asked him “how do we do this?”, O’Rourke said.

DeMack said Mayor O’Leary is committed to quick responses from his staff so he began a series of telephone calls that took him late into the night. “We were able to pull out all the stops and with a quick mobilization of city staff we got it done, DeMack said. “The Mayor sets a high bar and the staff responded.”

Beth Bye, the commissioner of the Office of Early Childhood called and joined a meeting on Saturday March 14th with O’Rourke, DeMack, Adam Rinko (Waterbury Emergency Management Director) and Bill Quin from the Waterbury Health Department on a walkthrough of the Y’s Rosehill facility.

“Getting approval for infant childcare is usually a long process,” O’Rourke said. “But we are in a crisis and we got approval in one day.”

O’Rourke then approached his staff, uncertain how they would respond. He was asking his staff to care for the children of healthcare workers on the frontlines. There would be a risk involved.

“The staff had no reservations at all,” O’Rourke said. “It was a heroic response. They wanted to take care of the children of healthcare workers on the frontlines. It was all hands-on deck.”

During the week of March 16th to the 22nd the staff went through intensive training and set up protocols for parents to drop off their children (no parents allowed in the facility), to screen children as they arrived (taking their temperature), and to implement stringent hygiene routines at the facility.

“The kids wash their hands throughout the day, we are wiping down surfaces every time they move from one area to the next, and do a thorough cleansing every night and again every morning,” O’Rourke said. “We’re being extremely careful.”

There is a command center set up inside the daycare facility run by Kristen Jones, the YMCA’s Child Development Director.

“The kids bring in their school packets to work on, and we have playtime and they get to watch virtual education programs on TV,” Jones said. “We keep them busy.”

Jones said at the moment the program is taking children from St. Mary’s Hospital and Waterbury Hospital.

“Our first day was March 23rd and we had 17 kids,” Jones said. Our second day we had 24 kids, and we expect the numbers to double when Waterbury Hospital gets involved.”  As of April 2, the number has increased to 48.

Waterbury Food Services provides breakfast and lunch every day for the kids, and O’Rourke has a friend, Chef Jim Nelson who cooks dinner for the kids. Karen Rainville of Waterbury’s Early Childhood Office was helpful connecting the YMCA to Dave Kulic of Kaplan, who donated infant toddler equipment, and then showed up to assemble the equipment himself.

O’Rourke said there is some money coming from the state to pay for the program, and the YMCA is applying for a Connecticut Community Grant.

“This is the right thing for us to do,” O’Rourke said, “and we’ll figure out the money part later on. If you do the right thing, the right thing usually happens.