Child care workers continue to put kids first through pandemic

Maddie Pyle likes playing with her friends, Marshall Peelman has fun at the dance parties and Avery Ulrey enjoys playing in the gym with scooters.

Even through a worldwide pandemic, child care must go on.

Some staff members weren’t able to keep working for health concerns or other reasons, and that’s understandable.

Those who were able to stick with it have adapted to following procedures so Maddie, Marshall, Avery and other kids could have fun and learn in a safe, caring environment.

The 22 staff members at Immanuel Lutheran Child Care Ministry in Seymour continue to do what they need to do to provide a much-needed service in the area — even if it involves wearing a face mask, washing their hands, sanitizing surfaces and having their temperature checked each day.

While it was closed for two months at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, the ministry has been open in full force ever since.

“We rewrote policies for COVID, and they have just been troupers in adhering to those policies,” said Patti Miller, who works in communications and children’s ministry at Immanuel Lutheran Church.

She said they have held each other accountable for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and worked really hard to understand what that means and how to protect themselves and the children and their families.

“The thing that has been different significantly for us, what they come to every day is truly in the trenches of care because they cannot socially distance from each other or from these children,” Miller said.

Taking care of kids from 6 weeks to 5 years old involves having them in their laps and being in close contact all day long. The program currently serves 65 kids but soon will grow to 80.

“The comfort and the care that we have always given to children in terms of physical contact, they have not given that up,” Miller said. “Our children don’t know any of this is going on. In schools, the kids know it. Even kindergartners will say, ‘Oh because of COVID, we can’t do whatever.’ … But here, we haven’t done that. We haven’t been able to do that in that regard.”

Miller said kids under age 2 shouldn’t wear a mask because it’s a health risk.

“These ladies every day put themselves in a place of being unprotected, and it’s a risk that they have willingly taken knowing that they are not able to socially distance from each other, they are not able to socially distance from these children, from these families, but every day, these ladies show up,” she said of her staff.

Some students and staff have had to quarantine at home due to exposure to the virus, and there are strict guidelines in place for when they can return.

“As soon as it’s up, we’re right back at it, and they are right back here,” Miller said.

Linda O’Haver and Jo Pfaffenberger have been assistant teachers for four years, and Virginia Fenton has worked for the ministry for five years, so they all were involved before the pandemic and during it.

O’Haver said while she and her co-workers notice differences, like having to wear a mask and follow other safety protocols, nothing has really changed for the kids.

“I was afraid they would be afraid of me when I first came back with my mask on, and you know, it didn’t seem to bother them,” she said. “They seem to be happy, and parents seem to be. I think they accept what’s going on right now, and I think they are happy with the way we’re dealing with it.”

While some co-workers quit due to fear of contracting the virus, Fenton said she wasn’t afraid to keep working.

“The thing that I keep thinking is the Lord will keep us safe. That’s how I look a it,” she said. “I take precautions, I’m not asking for it, but I just feel like it’s our job. I love the little children. We all love the little children or we wouldn’t be here. I’m willing to take the risk.”

Pfaffenberger said despite being high risk and her children expressing concern, she decided to stick with working.

“They hung in there with me, and I did go get an antibody test, and I’m completely free, I have no antibodies, and I’ve been right in there with all of the rest of them,” she said. “I intend to stay right there with all of the rest of them. I feel the most appreciated in this position I am in right now. It’s just something I want to do every day.”

Madison Criminger, on the other hand, started a new job a couple of months into the pandemic. She became the ministry’s program director in May 2020.

At the time, procedures and policies were being put in place to be ready for reopening. It was two weeks before she got to meet any kids, and she said she had a little anxiety not knowing how everything was going to go.

The first day when the kids started walking in, though, her perspective changed.

“Everyone was so anxious and everything was so chaotic everywhere else,” Criminger said. “Then you see these little faces coming in and they are just excited to be here and they are excited to do activities and see their friends. There was just like this calming peace about it.”

She said she’s a firm believer in “If you can’t change the situation, change your perspective.”

“It’s our job to come in here with a smile on our faces and greet those kids at the door with a happy ‘Good morning’ and ‘Are you ready to start the day? Let’s do all of these fun activities,'” she said.

Criminger said she can’t imagine being the kids’ age and having to deal with a pandemic, but the staff has done everything possible to make the environment normal.

“As long as we can’t change the situation, we can at least change our perspective and how we look at it and continue to see the good things,” she said.

Seeing the staff adjust has been great, too, Criminger said.

“It’s such a blessing knowing that I can come in here and just trust that every single person is doing every single thing they can to make sure that these kids are getting the best care and the best experience while they’re here,” she said.

Miller said it’s “just like a little piece of normal.” O’Haver said the kids see the level of normalcy.

“You can come in here in a bad mood, and once you step in that room, they’re like, ‘Oh, Mrs. Linda!’ and it’s better,” O’Haver said. “They actually make us feel good in the same way we hope we make them feel safe and feel good.”

Fenton said she appreciates the ministry and church leadership providing support and making the kids’ safety a prority.

“If we didn’t have their support, we could get discouraged,” she said. “They are very supportive. We feel like they appreciate it, and that gives you motivation.”

Pfaffenberger said it’s a bonus to be able to make friendships with the parents and see the kids continue to grow.

“To me, that’s wonerful,” she said.

Criminger said she recently was listening to a podcast and heard talk about doing the Lord’s work, and she commends the Immanuel staff for doing just that.

She also said it’s important to not get too busy doing the Lord’s work that you forget the Lord of the work.

“I will applaud these ladies 24/7 for everything they’ve done becuase they are doing the Lord’s work, but I also praise God for, one, keeping us all healthy and keeping our kiddos healthy, and just praising him for the work that we do,” Criminger said. “He’s the one in charge, and it’s so important for us to keep that as the focus. God is still in control.”

Miller agreed.

“This is his ministry, this belongs to the Lord, this is his ministry, this is his church and we are the hands and feet here,” she said. “We trust him to keep us safe.”

The demand for infant and toddler care is still prevalent, and Miller thanks the Immanuel leadership and congregation for the support in expanding the ministry to provide more care to more families.

“Even in a time of being pressed financially, we are growing and serving a need for child care in this community,” she said.

Immanuel Lutheran Child Care Ministry toddlers are pictured with teachers Jo Pfaffenberger, Linda O’Haver and Lisa Knott and Program Director Madison Criminger.