Marissa Szyslowski, single mother of three and a nurse at El Camino Hospital, recalls panicking the moment she heard schools were closing due to the shelter-in-place orders. But the El Camino Health Foundation, in partnership with the El Camino YMCA, rapidly established a child care program to support essential workers at the hospital.

The program, launched March 23 and free of charge, was made possible by community donations and the proactive efforts of both the YMCA and El Camino Hospital’s leadership team, according to Beth Shafran-Mukai, director of human resources operations for El Camino Hospital.

“We are a community and we are a district hospital,” Shafran-Mukai said. “If it wasn’t for the community, this program wouldn’t be possible.”

Szyslowski, who has worked as a nurse at the hospital for more than eight years, said the YMCA program offers much-needed support to her family.

“It provides a lot of peace of mind that they have a place to be when I’m at work,” Szyslowski said of her children. “They have a place where they can interact with other kids and stay busy with the activities versus being alone at home all day.”

The program is open 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. weekdays, and more than 50 children attend. To comply with social-distancing guidelines, kids are separated by age into groups of 10, except for siblings, who are grouped together.

Desiree Briones, senior site director at the Y, said they check the temperature of all children as they arrive in the morning to ensure they are fever-free, and all are required to wear face masks the entirety of the day. Additionally, desks in the various rooms are placed 6 feet apart, and each child maintains his or her own set of items, from coloring pencils to basketballs.

The safety measures initially posed a challenge for programming, noted Briones, who primarily works with the older kids.

“One of the games the kids like to play is HORSE, except instead of passing around the same ball, each child has their own basketball,” she said. “We have to think outside the box to come up with programs that are fun and interactive while social distancing.”

For the preschoolers, who don’t have online classes, staff members brainstormed creative ways to teach them the basics, including shapes, colors and the alphabet.

“Our main goal is to provide them with consistency and an idea of what school is like, that way they won’t be out of practice when they move to kindergarten, because that bridge is really important,” said site director Caryn Bettencourt.

Originally a three-week program, representatives from the Y and El Camino Hospital said they are committed to providing care for as long as needed and have already discussed extending the program to match the shelter-in-place mandate in effect through May 31.

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