These past couple of months have been extremely hard on our staff for a number of reasons: not only are they facing the loss of relationships they built with their kids at site, but many are also contending with the loss of employment, as we have been forced to close several of our childcare sites for the remainder of the school year. Even through these extremely difficult and challenging times, they have been understanding, patient, present, and concerned about the communities we serve. Their hard work and dedication is something that inspires us all at Camp Fire Alaska, and we appreciate their tremendous impact on our mission and our young people.

Our staff have done some remarkable things in a short amount of time, from preparing thorough guidelines to open emergency programs and implementing new protocols, to providing consistent opportunities to connect and support one another emotionally. While some doors remain closed throughout Alaska and over 14,000 Alaskans file for unemployment, other doors see an increase in traffic. For healthcare workers, Zoom is not an option. When schools closed in March, parents struggled to figure out what to do with their kids. Now, the many people who have transitioned into work-from-home situations or have been furloughed are staying home with their kids, helping them with their online coursework. But healthcare workers, however, still have to show up for demanding frontline shifts each day, and they desperately need a safe place to send their kids.

Along with school closures, afterschool programs ceased, leaving parents completely on their own. To protect older family members, parents take on childcare themselves by using up hard-earned PTO. Childcare professionals at Camp Fire Alaska work diligently to restructure programs and have necessary conversations with families and community leaders. Of the families they surveyed, 30% reported having at least one parent working in the healthcare field and also having a great need for childcare. With support of partners and donors, Camp Fire is now offering free childcare to Anchorage’s healthcare workers.

A flood of parents requested consideration when registration opened, one mom telling administrative staff, “when I saw the email saying that program would be free, I just started crying because I didn’t know how I was going to pull it [the expense] off due to having my hours cut to stagger people in the office.” A worried dad  who had been checking all day to see if registration was open said, “my wife and I are both healthcare workers, but I’ve been staying home to watch the kids so she can work,” and expressed deep gratitude after being offered a spot. Another mom told staff, “I’m an ICU nurse at Providence and a single mom, I’ve been paying a high weekly rate to have someone watch my daughter. I didn’t hear about Camp Fire’s program until, in the middle of a shift, a coworker came running up to show me the email that program would be free. We were hugging and in tears. If it wasn’t for this emergency program, I would have had to put my 8-year-old daughter on a plane to go live with her dad and stepmom until this was over.”

Two emergency sites are open Monday – Friday 7am – 6:30pm, with staff sanitizing multiple times throughout the day, keeping kids 6 feet apart at all times, “It feels different than program ever has. It can be really scary for kids to see staff with their goggles, gloves, and aprons on. One little girl came in glued to her mom’s leg so scared to come into a new place with new people. When it was time for her mom to go, she transferred herself from her mom’s leg to my leg. I had to ask her if her family had talked to her about keeping distance from others right now,” Chief Program Officer Melanie Hooper said after the 2nd day of program. “High fives are such a big part of Camp Fire program and human touch is a big part of the engagement factor, so that change has been hard, but after a few days, it seemed to fall in line. Kids now remind staff to radio ahead to ensure there isn’t another group in the hallway,” says Professional Development Manager Taylor Strelevitz. 

Camp Fire’s reputation is one that is trusted, staff being the driving force to build that trust. Summer Camp Program Manager, Rae Ratliff who has been overseeing emergency care sites, comments on her staff, “they are showing up fully to the table, extremely receptive to the new health safety protocol—there’s a deep responsibility felt for these youth, so from what we do in our homes to what we do in our spare time, we are doing all we can do to keep our youth safe. Also, school is now built into our program, so we have staff supporting youth in their academics. Stepping into that role is a bigger ask and to see them elevate our program in that way is powerful. They want to make emergency program feel comfortable more like the Camp Fire kids are familiar with.”

To all Camp Fire Alaska Staff—you are our everyday heroes. Youth thrive because of you. Our mission continues because of your dedication and hard work. Your adaptability is a testament to the essential support you provide to Alaska’s kids and working families. And so, during this National Provider Appreciation Week, we thank you and celebrate your incredible service to our community.