When the pandemic hit, Greater Seacoast Community Heath needed to move quickly. The organization runs three clinics in Portsmouth, Somersworth and Rochester, as well as recovery centers in Rochester, Dover and Portsmouth, serving up to 7,400 people a month. Faced with coronavirus, the organization took the same steps as many others: switching to telehealth and adopting new protocols to keep staff safe.
“It caught us off guard, but we quickly recovered,” said Janet Laatsch, CEO of Greater Seacoast Community Health. “We’ve had to really adapt and be very agile, and at the same time take care of patients and staff.”
That meant not just physically protecting them, but also addressing the mental and emotional burdens of the pandemic. In March, as schools started switching to remote learning, someone floated the idea of a childcare center that would be available for school-aged children of staff. Greater Seacoast Community Health has 174 full-time equivalent positions, and many people were struggling to balance work with the uncertainty around school reopening. Still, the organization had a lot to cope with, so the idea was tabled.
“Nobody wanted to do it at that time,” Laatsch said.
But the idea never fully went away. In August, when it became clear that many schools around the Seacoast would be doing remote learning at least part of the time, the idea of providing childcare for kids who couldn’t be in their classroom came up again. This time, Patrice Baker, Parent Education Manager at Greater Seacoast Community Health, took charge.
“I got wind of this at a meeting and I just thought ‘oh my gosh,’” Baker said. It seemed necessary, and with a background in education, Baker felt that she could pull it off. She knew she would have to do so quickly, with the school year right around the corner.
Baker polled employees to see where the most demand for the program was, and balanced that with available space. That’s how the Learning Center ended up at Goodwin Community Health Center in Somersworth, tucked into a now-converted conference room.
Today, about 10 kids attend the program, which still has a couple of open spaces. The children range in age from 6-16. They come with everything they need for remote schooling, and two staff members hired specifically for this purpose help with lessons and coordinate activities during downtime. Volunteers from UNH and a local Foster Grandparents group also help in the classroom.
“There’s always a silver lining in a disaster like this, and it really has pulled the community together,” said Laatsch.
Although the program is only used by a small number of staff, it’s critical for those people, Baker said.
“I know how stressful it was for everybody to do their jobs and help their kids with schooling. It’s impossible to do both at home,” she said. “This is real hands-on practical help for our staff. People have been really appreciative.”
In fact, the program has become a sort of recruiting tool, Laatsch said. Recently a new nurse said that she was swayed to join Great Seacoast Community Health when she learned that her two kids could use the Learning Center.
Laatsch is clear that this is a temporary solution to help families get through the pandemic.
“It’s not in our mission to be a licensed daycare,” she said. “The reason we could do this so quickly was the emergency orders.”
With the normal licensing requirements adjusted during the pandemic, opening the Learning Center just took a quick call to the state and to the organization’s insurance company, she said.
Although it won’t last forever, Baker said the Learning Center has had big benefits, for staff and their children.
“It’s good we’re able to give these kids some of these regular experiences that they’re used to,” she said, adding that the first graders in the program pull at everyone’s heartstrings. “It’s been great. I will miss it when it ends, but when it ends that will be a happy thing because it means that kids are going to school.
This story is part of the 50 Businesses; 50 Solutions series shared by partners in the Granite State News Collaborative. It has now grown beyond 50, as NH businesses continue step up to face the challenges posed by the pandemic and the Collaborative continues to highlight how business leaders across the state, from mom and pop shops, to large corporations have adapted in the hope others may be able to replicate these ideas and innovations. Tell us your story here. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.