Updated: May 2, 2020
Base Childcare staff carry on during crisis
Good childcare is a critical part of many American’s lives in uniform and, according to officials and parents at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County, the Department of Defense (DOD) provides some of the best childcare services available anywhere.
“We believe we're the best at what we do in the world,” said Francisco Jamison, chief of Child Youth Services (CYS) at Fort Meade in an interview in February. “Not just us, but what the Department of Defense offers for childcare has been proven time and time again to be the top of childcare. We are passionate about it. We love what we do.”
In response to the current virus emergency Jamison wrote in an email March 19:
“At Fort Meade we have a workforce that works around the clock, non-stop. It is imperative that these mission-essential families have the support they need to continue out their day-to-day operations. In spite of covid-19 we are doing everything in our capacity to ensure a safe place for children and the workforce.”
The life of a U.S. Soldier, Sailor, Marine, Airman or Guardsman may bring to mind a strong, self-reliant American in uniform, or maybe a military unit working smoothly together to protect our country. But there are also hundreds of children of Fort Meade patriots who need to be cared for while mom and dad are on duty.
To meet the need, Fort Meade has three child development centers (CDC) along with one that is being renovated, two school age programs and a youth center. In addition, by the summer the seven in-home providers certified by CYS is expected to grow to 10 and the renovated center is expected to be back in action too. All tolled, there are over 800 kids in childcare on Fort Meade, according to Jamison.
Those numbers are a reflection of the size of America’s second largest Army base, measured by number of employees. According to the U.S. Army, Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County is larger in population than the city of Annapolis and includes about 11,000 people living on post. Most of the base ,though, is made up of civilian workers. Forty percent of its 58,000 total employees live in Anne Arundel County. They are eligible for childcare too, but opportunity is limited because those serving in the armed forces take priority.
Jamison sees the value of the services his organization provides to parents in terms of the CYS’s mission. It’s what he believes helps Fort Meade childcare excel beyond the industry norm.
“The development of children, that's what sets us apart from from the outside sometimes,” he said.“We're in the business of child development. We’re not babysitters, (or) just child supervisors. We are here to develop children--their motor skills, cognitively, development is across the spectrum. And that's what makes our job rewarding. It's not just about watching children for eight or 10 hours a day. It's about developing them, preparing them for school.”
According to the CYS parent handbook the organization’s philosophy is to: “Offer an environment where young children and youth are provided the opportunity to learn through play, recreational activities, and interaction with other children, youth and nurturing adults “
During a tour of Child Development Center IV, Acting Director Tameka Mackey said that the energetic activity of the 120 children at her center could sometimes resemble the “O.K Corral”. Looking closer reveals that he centers have set specific goals in helping their young charges develop mentally, socially, physically and emotionally.
“They have story time,” Mackey said. “They have center time, they have nap time. They have physical activity time.” There is the flexibility to allow a child to do their own thing if they are not in a mood for learning and there is even time for technology.
“There's lots of interesting areas for the children to go to, and have fun,” she noted. “They learn through play. You know, when we grew up, everybody sat at the table, and we looked and said, this is one apple, this is two apples, this is three apples. Instead of, we may (combine) apples and the sensory, and then they're not necessarily counting--but they're learning as they're playing.”
That interactivity can be extended toward the curriculum the children are going through too and can be tailored to the individual. Today, interactivity can also mean interacting with technology at a very tender age.
“You have tablet time,” Mackey acknowledged. “But they still have a curriculum that they have to follow. It's a theme lesson plan. The teachers take the observations from the children, type in observations, and curriculum will spit out activities based on that specific child's individual needs.”
Tablets are not the only technology in the center. Security is a top priority and cameras are a daily reality there, to monitor both staff and children. The centers just got new cameras and recently started integrating audio in the monitoring practices too.
“Our number one question (from parents) bar none, is cameras,” Jamison said. “So, they're there to ensure that we are doing well by children. In fact, the origin was child abuse prevention, when in practicality, it tends to be a benefit for the staff. You know, if we're working with children, they're human beings. So in the midst of a day we can come back and pick them up and there's a scratch on them, or they've run and they've walked into a bookshelf, something kind of happened to put a mark on them that wasn't there this morning. That becomes very sensitive for a parent. They want to make sure their children are safe. And so those cameras come in very handy for those purposes.”
Jamison has noted that incorporating the audio has been an adjustment sometimes for staff. They have become more self-conscious of what and how they are speaking to children.
The CYS programs and facilities undergoes a rigorous inspection schedule through the U.S. Army Installation Management Command at Joint Base San Antonio. They are inspected multiple times a year, Jamison said.
Mackey agreed that the military set a very high standard for caring for the children of Fort Meade employees. She once worked in off-base childcare and said the differences were quickly apparent.
“I think it's just the structure and the compliance, “ she said. “When I've taken (childcare) classes in the civilian world, they have a rating of the lowest that you can have to the highest expectations. There is no, ‘This is what you need to pass’ Our bar is extremely high. We’re world class.”
Ratings and regimens aside, the final judge of the quality of childcare is perhaps best estimated, by the satisfaction of the children who go their as well as their parents and caregivers.
Naomi Welcome is a retired from the military, but lives on base and has three daughters. She continues to bring her child to a child development center on base for the hourly program.
“My almost-two-year-old is the one that comes on base. My oldest was raised in the CDCs, my four year old was raised in a CDCs...they've always been really good. They've loved it, and they're really smart. So, I mean, I might be a little biased. But the CDCs have all help raise my children and they've just been fantastic. And my kids learn a lot. So they're not missing anything when they go through the programs.”
The rewards of childcare aren’t only for the children. Jamison grew up as a military brat going through base childcare, so he knows the positive impact it can have on kids. He’s seen it evolve and improve over the years, now including both a bigger budget and more opportunity.
But when it comes down to it, he said, the biggest reward is for him to have a personal role in a child’s life.
“It’s a stressful job, “ he said. “It’s a great job. So the children, I mean, they make all the difference in the world. I mean, to get up every day and be able to change someone's life is impactful, It’s powerful. You know, I’m not pushing buttons somewhere every day. And, yeah, not to denigrate that, but it's rewarding to be with children and to see them grow.”