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As one of the Toledo area’s leading family-focused community agencies, the YMCA of Greater Toledo has had a long relationship with Greater Toledo Community Foundation. When the COVID-19 pandemic upended the lives of so many served by the Y, the established partnership became more important than ever.

Rewriting the script for childcare

“GTCF had been helping support our early childhood programs that serve infants, toddlers and preschoolers by enabling us to improve teaching practices and program quality, as well as hiring a teacher mentor to implement curriculum programs,” said Lesley Doria, YMCA Vice President of Child Care. “The whole culture in our early childhood programs had changed in a positive direction.”

She continued, “It’s well-known that more than 60% of children entering kindergarten in Ohio are not ready to learn. Our goal was to have every child kindergarten-ready, and pre-COVID we had been making tremendous progress. We had more than 20 centers serving 1300 to 1500 kids each day from 10 area school districts, with about 86% of kids in our programs at ready-to-learn levels.”

Then on March 25, all early childcare centers were ordered to close — and the Y’s forward momentum suddenly halted. “We received pandemic licensing but maintaining capacity to re-open was a challenge. We had to change health and safety practices as well as cleaning procedures and spent a lot of time and expense to make those work,” said Lesley. “At first, we were able to keep only four centers open and could accept only about 200 youngsters from families of essential workers.”

Pre-pandemic, the Y was also working inside elementary schools, providing wrap-around before- and after-school care — and again, the Y adapted. “We worked directly with school districts in the past, so we were an entity the schools could lean on for support,” said Lesley. “We transitioned our early childcare stand-alone services to accommodate working families with school-aged kids who needed daytime supervision.”

Lesley observed that GTCF funding was vital to sustaining the YMCA’S childcare activities during the peak months of the pandemic. “Some of the funds helped us provide staff to facilitate virtual learning. Kids needed a lot of help with that, especially at the very beginning,” she noted.

“And, about 50% of our kids are on some kind of assistance, such as state funds or YMCA scholarships, and paid by attendance, rather than enrollment. This was tough because student attendance was very inconsistent,” she explained. “The other 50% of families couldn’t budget for kids to be out of school the entire time. Going from $60 or $80 a week for part-time to $140 for full-time is a big jump up. GTCF funding allowed us to expand services to kids without passing costs along to families.”

Feeding the newly hungry

When many formerly self-sufficient families found themselves under financial stress, GTCF funding also supported expanded food distribution and hot meals for families at various YMCA facilities across the region.

Beth Deakins, YMCA’s Director of Healthy Living, explained the Y’s role of distribution in a collaborative effort to provide meals to families in need. “We work with Summer Meal Partners, a group that provides kids with food when school is not in session, Connecting Kids to Meals, and A Village on Adams / Manhattan’s Catering, both of which provide the bulk of meals for children in after-school programs, sports programs that feed participating kids, and YMCA sites,” she said.

With pandemic restrictions in place, the Y and their partners no longer could provide the in-person, family-meal experiences that were their norm. But hot meals that families could enjoy together was still the focus. And, with the GTCF grant, the program expanded from one to three meals a day — so when parents came to pick up lunches, they would also get something for dinner and breakfast for the following day.

“We saw the same faces and families over and over,” said Beth. “They told us that sharing breakfast, lunch and dinner together when the parents were unable to work made a big difference. Because of the GTCF funding we received, we built new relationships with families that typically wouldn’t have needed assistance.

“In some cases, families weren’t even really able to cook,” Beth added. “One of the barriers we consistently saw were families that didn’t even have the means to cook — like a working stove or oven, or pots and pans — or families who had the utilities turned off because they were unable to pay the bills. The hot meals that the Y was able to provide helped parents fill the gap even though they didn’t personally have the means to make that happen.”

GTCF grant supports sustained service

“When it was announced that schools were going to go remote and food access at schools would no longer be available to them, the Y network pulled together to ask, ‘What are the locations where we could start something immediately?’” said Beth. Right away, Wayman Palmer and Eastern Community Y, serving Oregon & East Toledo residents, were added, as were the West Toledo and Wolf Creek locations a few weeks later, with Panera as an additional meal-prep supporter.

“GTCF funding came through quickly, and the actual dollars lasted us through October. But, because of the funding we got, we were able to put some things in place to help us sustain the programs,” said Beth. “Food insecurity issues are not going away. Food access has been an issue in our community for some time, and the GTCF grant has provided resources to building systems and structures that will help address these issues going forward.”

Beth also acknowledged the service of countless volunteers, some of whom were actually furloughed YMCA employees and older community members who were among the most at risk of contracting COVID-19. “It’s passion work,” she noted. “The strength of relationship and collaboration in Toledo really pushed us ahead in the pandemic and gave us an opportunity to build people up at a time when things were crumbling beneath us.” Added Lesley, “Shifting our programs to meet shifting needs was how we kept going.”

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