Memphis Kroc Center provides care for kids of first responders, medical workers

By: David Ibata

The joyful sounds of children at play returned to the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Memphis, Tennessee. The Kroc Center has – very carefully – opened its doors to the offspring of first responders and health care providers.

“There’s definitely a need,” said Kenyota Ward, youth development director for The Salvation Army Memphis Area Command. “For us, it’s an honor to be able to play a part in helping responders and health care workers help others.”

All Memphis-area schools and many daycare operations closed in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Kroc Center suspended programming March 16; it’s been staying in touch with members online and is a hub of community feeding initiatives.

In April, Ward said, “we found out several businesses were going to be permitted to offer emergency childcare, so we reached out to the Tennessee Department of Human Services and asked how we’d go about making this work in our facility.”

Working with state and local authorities, the Kroc Center on Monday, April 20, opened for full-day childcare for children ages 5 to 12. Twenty-five kids came the first day; by the end of the first week, the program was nearly at its 50-child capacity. The service will conclude May 8 as the Kroc Center prepares to open its other programs on Monday, May 11.

“It’s going great,” said Major Marion Platt, Memphis area commander. “It’s definitely a popular program in our community.”

Childcare is free to parents, thanks to the generosity of a local donors. “What we are doing from a development standpoint is letting donors know they have the opportunity to help; they can sponsor a day or a week,” Major Platt said.

The Kroc Center spends about $7,500 week on staffing and two meals a day plus snacks for the children, the major said. Three weeks are planned and paid for; a decision will be made in May how and whether to continue.

Public health officials guided the Kroc Center as it modified cleaning practices, adjusted check-in and check-out procedures and scheduled space and staffing to ensure social distancing among youngsters.

Every morning, children are checked in outside. Both they and adult staff members have their temperatures taken, and a brief questionnaire makes sure no one is coughing or showing other symptoms of the novel coronavirus.

“The kids then clean their hands and come inside,” Ward said. “Their personal belongings remain outside, and we disinfect them before bringing them inside.”

Children are broken up into small groups, and their days are carefully scheduled “so we don’t have too many in the same place at the same time, doing the same activity,” Ward said. “As groups rotate around, staff makes sure areas are cleaned for the next group. There’s a thorough cleaning before and after program times. We’re making sure all our kiddos are kept safe, and our staff as well.”

The center, with its Kroc Academy, tries to meet the educational needs of kindergarteners through 7th graders. They work on math, science and language arts. “We have learning packets for each child, computer time in the computer lab to finish their assignments and computers available for game play, with space between the children,” Ward said.

The children also have arts and crafts, and physical activities – though these are limited “because we don’t want kids too close together. We do different version of relay races. We’ve been trying soccer and kickball.”

And every morning, there are devotions and a Bible story.

“We try to keep the kids active and help them have fun,” Ward said.

The Kroc Center also is serving families, streaming its worship services; offering online fitness classes for members; doing on-site food distribution in partnership with the Mid South Food Bank; and working with local restaurants to supply meals for the FedEx Disaster Response Unit (canteen) to take to homeless residents.

Memphis and Kerrville, Texas, are the first Kroc Centers in Southern Territory history to offer full-day childcare, doing so for the children of first responders and medical personnel – and in Kerrville, of city officials and essential workers as well – in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, according to Melissa Williams, Kroc territorial marketing manager.

“Kerrville’s been doing this from the beginning” of the novel coronavirus crisis, Williams said.

Every Kroc Center in the territory is streaming worship services, offering online fitness classes, making food distributions, conducting daily call-ins for short devotionals and worship music, and undertaking extensive cleaning and maintenance, among other activities, Williams said. Memphis and Kerrville, though, are the only two that have partially reopened their buildings.

In Memphis, Ward said, “just having the kids here is really a blessing for us, to provide to them a normal life again. Before our program, a lot of them were stuck at home, away from school, isolated from their friends. Here, we’ve been able to put a little bit of normal back into their lives.”