As the world grinds to a halt due to COVID-19, it’s the little things in life that are making the greatest difference.

At the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System, it’s knowing that family comes first.

Cloths draped over the seats remind children to practice social distancing.

The closure of schools caught many parents off guard, leaving some with no options for child care. Employees who couldn’t telework had to choose between caring for their children or caring for Veterans.

“The employees had a need,” said Belinda “Belle” Karabatsos. “They had reached out and were telling our director, Shella Stovall, they really wanted to help support us during the COVID-19 crisis, but were having child care issues due to schools closing.” Karabatsos is the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System’s acting assistant director.

Amid the uncertainty, VA employees did what they do best: stepped up to help.

A free child care center in a matter of days

They worked through the challenges of finding a good site and the right staff to provide a positive experience for the children. Within a matter of days, Karabatsos joined Melissa Hobbs and Katie Schatz to create a free, onsite, emergency child care center. Hobbs is the chief of quality management; Schatz is a health systems specialist.

“Even as the world slows, life goes on.”

The center runs from 6:45 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. The service is available to VA employees who cannot telework and are tasked to care for patients. “We will continue to provide the service as long as there is a need,” Karabatsos said, adding that parents need to provide a sack lunch for their child.

Life goes on

Disney movies now play in the auditorium that was once used for performances and high-level meetings.

Cloths drape over the seats, serving as an ever-present reminder for children to practice social distancing.

Children still play, eat and learn, proof that even as the world slows, life goes on.

“I like it here. It’s quiet with no other kids around,” Matthew, 12, and the first child to attend, said. “We ate, had snacks and I raced cars down the hallway. I had lots of fun racing cars. I could do that all day.”

Within view of where the surge of COVID-19 patients will be triaged, Matthew’s art is scrawled on the sidewalk. The cheery hearts and faces lend color to an otherwise gray campus.

While only a few children attend the child care center now. In the coming weeks, there will be more. The center can house up to 20 children, should there be a need, Karabatsos said.

Chalk drawings on a sidewalk

Sidewalk art adds color to the campus.

For now, staffing is not an issue. Many of the all-employee staff help with child care, volunteering to work before or after shifts.

Employees grateful for volunteers

“I think it’s been a great experience,” Karabatsos said. “For the folks who are volunteering to help out with child care, it’s not something they normally do. For them to put their own needs aside is phenomenal.”

The effort wasn’t lost on employees working the front lines … they are grateful to VA for putting family first.

“Parents who’ve brought their children have really enjoyed it,” Karabatsos said. “They are glad to know their kids are being taken care of and close by. It’s more comforting for them.”

While it’s a small gesture, it’s one less worry, one less uncertainty in an uncertain world. If we stick together, there’s always a glimmer of hope.

T.S. Jarmusz is a public affairs specialist with the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System. Tod Peterson is a VA photographer.

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Published on Apr. 14, 2020

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