Doing the “Essential Work”: Blossom Center and the COVID 19 Pandemic

By Creed Mushimbo

Staying true to mission:

The gravity and impact of the COVID 19 pandemic took the childcare industry by storm. At Blossom Center for Childhood Excellence (Blossom Center), we quickly came to terms with the realization that life was rapidly changing. One by one, daycare centers in and around Oak Ridge shut their doors, as we waited for a very cautious, almost uncertain Tennessee Department of Human Services (DHS) to provide a clear directive on what providers were to do. For Blossom Center this was a blessing. It enabled us to serve our community at a very crucial time, illuminating our mission and, underscoring the need to increase investment in Blossom Center’s program. Let us see how this was done.

Challenges of staying open:

On March 13, 2020, as COVID 19 cases increased in Tennessee and the chaos and panic skyrocketed, I communicated that Blossom Center would remain open. Even for a small place like Blossom Center, too much was happening. There were parents panicking in the face of lost employment, but also eager to maintain “their spot” at Blossom Center.

Meanwhile other parents still had to report to work, but panicking still because they feared the Center might shutdown alongside other daycare centers. We stayed true to our mission. Knowing if we closed our doors, essential workers with children at Blossom Center would have no childcare at a critical time. These essential workers are working in nursing homes, healthcare, retail, among other industries. No one got turned away.

Yet, remaining open was not without its challenges, biggest among them being FEAR. To counter this fear, we obsessively followed available protocols. For one, we sprayed bleach water throughout the Center numerous times a day and lived to wash hands! We closely monitored for any signs of illness—took temperatures and sent a few people home to quarantine. Staff members wore masks and for the most part, still do. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and DHS guidelines were fully implemented.  

Then the shortages hit. Bleach began disappearing from store shelves. Remaining true to our menu was hard because we had trouble finding some of our staples. Bread and milk, for example, were sometimes difficult to find. The frequent hand washing caused dry skin, and a phenomenal use of paper towels and hand soap- both products already in short supply.

Paradoxically, declining attendance with its negative impact on program revenue, actually helped alleviate the pressure of the shortages. With many parents out of work, attendance was down two-thirds.

Community support that has been stronger than ever:

To help the Blossom Center navigate the new set of challenges brought on by COVID 19 was strong community support. Parents and Blossom Center’s Friends immediately stepped up to help. For example, Dr. Mary Palmer donated a nice digital thermometer to help Blossom Center staff check temperature quickly and accurately. Many Friends donated gallons of bleach to the Center. Parents buying groceries for their homes frequently picked up items for Blossom Center too. Likewise, a group at the Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church (ORUUC) made masks for Blossom Center staff and children. Support like this, has helped the Center survive COVID 19. 

Institutional and inter-agency response

Also, important has been support from institutional stakeholders. Foremost among them in this category is DHS, which licenses and monitors Blossom Center. DHS’ response to COVID 19 was very cautious at first, which consequently enabled childcare providers to determine their own course of action based on unique circumstances. DHS went so far as to announce that licensing regulations would be “relaxed.” For Blossom Center this was good. It gave us a flexible, but proper framework within which to operate without violating any guidelines.

Once DHS adopted a clear position, i.e. that there would be no mandated closing of childcare centers—the speed with which they moved to protect childcare providers from what would have been total catastrophe—was nothing short of impressive. Although site visits were suspended, technical support was readily available at a level I had never seen before. Further, financial support for both families and providers alike shot up.

DHS funding was routed through the Childcare Certificate Program. In this regard, the department effectively suspended its attendance requirement and pledged to pay full rates through the end of April. For childcare providers such as Blossom Center, with a significant number of children on state childcare assistance- a sudden shift in tuition source occurred. The state, rather than the individual parent became the largest tuition contributor. Hands down, the department has done a stellar job helping providers like Blossom Center survive.

Then there is the $40210.00 of Paycheck Protection Plan funds from the Small Business Administration (SBA) that Blossom Center’s Banker—David Bradshaw at Pinnacle Financial Partners, with help from meticulous Blossom Center Board Treasurer Martin Bauer, landed for Blossom Center.

Investments in time of crisis:

At the same time, Blossom Center has been awash with grant funds. First was a grant for $3500.00 from Y-12FCU Gives Foundation to help Blossom Center in its effort against childhood hunger. Blossom Center was a suitable partner because even in the face of the COVID 19 pandemic—we continue to cook meals on site for children in our care. In 2019 alone, for example, we provided more than sixteen thousand seven hundred (16700) meals and snacks!

Then again, Donna Forstrom facilitated another grant application to the Elk’s Lodge Foundation. She got us $2000.00! This grant will increase Blossom Center’s capacity to function and respond in the face of COVID 19.

 Meanwhile, Blossom Center’s “Roof Campaign” was a resounding success. The Rotary Club of Oak Ridge Sunset contributed $2075.00, while Faith Lutheran Church contributed $2000.00 to Blossom Center’s Roof Campaign. Thanks to these grants and funding from individual donors, Blossom Center now has a beautiful metal roof, installed during the Corona Virus pandemic. It is guaranteed to last at least forty years!

Another major investment in the midst of the COVID 19 pandemic was in a brand new HVAC system for Blossom Center’s Multipurpose Room. The Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church (ORUUC) contributed $2000.00, while Cook’s Comfort contributed $2500.00 towards the installation of this heating and cooling system. Other donors made up for the difference needed to make the $10200.00 needed for the project.

High up on our priority list as our financial position strengthens, is to reward Blossom Center teachers and staff for their commitment and dedication to the Center’s mission. These essential workers put their precious lives on the line, so generously every single day, to ensure childcare for other essential workers. Their service is priceless and will be rewarded to the maximum extent of Blossom Center’s capacity.

Looking forward in the near future, Blossom Center also plans to pave its parking lot. A quote from one of Blossom Center’s longtime corporate donors—Roger’s Group puts this project at a discounted $16480.00. At this price, Blossom Center will get an eighteen vehicle parking lot in place of the hodge-podge of the potholes that make it difficult for parents every day. What this will do for Blossom Center’s curb appeal factor goes without saying. 

Conclusion:

If COVID 19 has taught me one thing at all, it is that we need to invest in Blossom Center, both in good and in bad times. We need a place to care for our children, during all hours of day; a place that is open the longest hours possible—so that if and when crises unfold, care for our community’s children is assured. COVID 19 has rejuvenated my vision of a place like Blossom Center. Thank goodness we are here!