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Why Parents Choose Military Child Care

By Staff Sgt. Alicia K. Borlik, USA
American Forces Press Service

effort to provide quality, affordable child care. For the most current information, visit the web si, June 24, 1999 – This story is part of a series of articles on the military's effort to provide quality, affordable child care. For the most current information, visit the web site special "Formula and Fatigues, Diapers and Duty" at http://www.defenselink.mil/specials/childcare/.

Cost and convenience may be why military parents first choose their base child development center, but it's the quality of care their children receive that keeps them there.

It wasn't long ago that military child care centers were little more than glorified baby-sitting services. That is, if the base had a center. DoD's more than 1.4 million active duty members who are parents to 1.3 million children demanded change, according to DoD officials.

Nowadays, most installations have waiting lists for their centers, and more centers are being built to meet the demand for care. Improvements took time, but they were necessary, said Linda Tully, director of the child development center at U.S. Naval Station Anacostia, Washington, D.C.

"We certainly need to give our military personnel our very best to make it possible for them to defend the country and do their jobs," Tully said.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Barbara Smejkal, a single parent and an information manager at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., is grateful for the quality care DoD centers provide her daughter.

"My first reason when I put my daughter in [military] daycare was convenience. It's on base. It was on my way to work," she said. Back in 1997, she didn't know what to look for in a child care facility because she had no need. After her baby girl spent two weeks in an off-post, civilian center while waiting for on-base care, Smejkal learned what she didn't want.

The sergeant returned to work when her daughter, Summer, was only 6 weeks old. Like many first-time parents, her mind frequently wandered and she would wonder how her baby was doing.

To ease her transition back, she visited the civilian center often to see her daughter. On her first visit, she walked in and saw Summer and other babies just crying, alone in their cribs. She said it was a scene that made her want to cry, too.

Knowing the situation was only temporary didn't make things better. She started calling the civilian center often to make sure her baby was fine.

"I couldn't concentrate on work because I was worried," she said.

"When I brought her to the military child development center, I saw caregivers with a baby in each arm trying to soothe them both, or holding one and patting the other trying to get them both to quit crying if they needed to," Smejkal said. "When Summer is in the CDC [child development center], I'm not worried about her. I can totally be at work, at ease and do what I need to do and know she is safe and well taken care of. It makes it a lot easier for me."

Child care providers like Francis Ward and Sandy Holcomb at Andrews Air Force Base and Nell Yost at Anacostia feel it's part of their job to put parents at ease with their child care choice.

"It's very important for parents to know we will go that extra distance and make sure their child is well taken care of," Holcomb said. "When a parent comes in and says, 'I can be at work, and I have peace of mind knowing that my child is here with you,' that is just the best reward one can ask for."

Holcomb works with 6- to 12 month-old infants and said what she enjoys most is seeing "one of her kids" use the skills she helped them learn. "I help them with physical skills, fine motor skills. We enhance their creative skills, too, through artwork, feeling textures and learning about the environment. They grow so fast, do so much," she said. "It really makes you feel good inside to know you enhanced those skills."

Ward works with 4-year-olds and, for the year she has them, loves getting them ready for kindergarten. "I prepare them for school, get them ready socially. When the parents come back and say they're doing very well, the reward is there," she said.

Yost brags that pre-toddlers are the best age group. She's worked with 1- and 2-year-olds at Anacostia for about a year now. "It's not so much what they do, but the process," Yost said. "You see their hands in the glue or [finger] paint -- they love it. I like it because of their expressions."

Holcomb, Ward and Yost are typical of many child care providers who enter the profession because of their love for children. Love, patience and understanding are very important, Andrews CDC director Janet Love said, but a caregiver's most important job is to help the child develop.

That's why military providers must complete training modules on subjects such as safety, age-appropriate activities, working with families, professionalism and discipline, Love said. "The safety module would have the teacher go through her classroom and check for hazards and assess her environment," she said. Some of the modules require activities with the children, she added.

"We call ourselves child development, not just day care," said Diane Webber, deputy director at the Andrews center. "We have a real interest in helping the child learn, develop and grow."

Military centers focus on the whole child, not just feeding and diapering. The Andrews center displays its goals prominently in the waiting area:

  • Encourage creativity through materials, movement, language and thinking.
  • Help the child develop a positive self-image and self-worth.
  • Provide opportunities for the child to develop socialization skills with peers and adults.
  • Provide opportunities for physical development in both gross and fine motor skills.
  • Provide opportunities to enhance cognitive intellectual development.
  • Encourage independence and interdependence.
  • Encourage a positive attitude toward learning.

All DoD child development centers share goals mirroring those of programs accredited by the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs, the accrediting arm of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The association administers the largest and most widely recognized national, voluntary professionally sponsored accreditation program for all types of early childhood schools and child care centers.

About 89 percent of military child development centers have earned national accreditation by meeting the association's stringent guidelines. While the accreditation process examines the total child care program, the greatest emphasis is placed on the quality of interactions among staff and children and developmental appropriateness of curriculum. All DoD centers aim to be fully accredited by 2000.

"I think a lot of places are just baby-sitting services and make sure your child is safe, fed and clean," said single parent Smejkal. "Whereas here, they also help your child develop emotionally and mentally and physically."

"When my son came to the CDC, you could tell the difference," said Navy Lt. William E. Hamilton, Military Sealift Command headquarters, Washington, D.C. "He would come home singing nursery rhymes, and he just seemed a little different, growing a bit."

Anacostia center director Tully said children are assigned a primary caregiver who watches for developmental milestones as well as maintaining feeding and diapering schedules. "They know that child very well and have especially good contact with the parent," she said. "Everything is oriented to give more individualized attention, to help the children reach their potential.

"So much effort is put on interaction and developing the total child," said Tully, a center director or assistant director for more than 11 years. "The military child care centers are really the best."

She's not alone in that opinion. President Clinton validated it in 1997 by citing the military child development program as the nation's best and a national model of child care. Clinton also charged military centers to share their child care challenges and triumphs with the civilian sector.

The Anacostia center is going to be a training site for economically disadvantaged adults interested in training to be care providers. Through a partnership with Covenant House, a national organization that provides outreach services to children and families in crisis, the Anacostia center will accept volunteers for 12 months of training.

"The candidates will be selected by Covenant House, but they must meet all our requirements," Tully said. The volunteers will work in a classroom with a mentor for 12 months. During that time they will complete training to become qualified child care providers.

"It makes me feel good to open the center up to the civilian sector," Tully added. "It also shows we really have come a long way. We have learned many lessons."

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