The Cox Learning Center will be the first location that will use "Give 5" volunteers to supplement staffing at its child care facility. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Greene County has lost hundreds of spots for children at licensed daycare centers. While many programs have re-opened or been able to add back spots since 2020, this community is still down about 500 slots and waitlists span several months to over a year.

By all accounts, this loss of spots has little to do with a need for more classroom space or buildings. It’s due to the lack of child care workers to staff those classrooms.

In recent months, members of the Springfield Mayor’s Commission for Children have been working on an idea — a pilot program — to help child care providers retain and support workers by bringing in volunteer classroom aides.

The pilot program will match Give 5 participants with volunteer opportunities at Cox Medical Center North and Cox Medical Center South child care centers.

Program seeks retirees to volunteer

Give 5 is a “civic matchmaking” program that connects soon-to-be-retirees and retirees with meaningful volunteer opportunities that best fit their skill sets and passions. Members of the commission will give a presentation about the pilot program to Give 5 participants May 4.

The hope behind the pilot program is these volunteer classroom aides from the Give 5 program will make teachers feel more supported, as well as be a benefit to both the children and the retirees.

“Children keep you young,” said Karrie Ridder, director of CoxHealth learning centers. “They are going to come in and have fun with these kids. They are going to play with these kids. They are going to build relationships with these kids.

Director of CoxHealth learning centers Karrie Ridder was looking for ways to help support childcare workers. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

“There’s nothing more rewarding than watching a child grow and develop,” she continued. “It’s so much fun to watch kids grow and develop. We’ve got that age group where they do it fast. You see it. It’s pretty cool.”

The classroom aides can volunteer at whichever location is most convenient and for however much time they want. The CoxHealth learning centers have flexible hours to meet the needs of hospital’s employees, so volunteers from the Give 5 program will also have some flexibility when they help out.  The Cox South Learning Center is open on weekends, and both are open a bit later on weekdays than most child care providers.

“If they want to do one day a week, two days a week or one time a month, we are going to be flexible,” Ridder said. “We know they are retired and they have other things that they are doing.”

The volunteer classroom aides will not be counted as staff as far as the state’s teacher-to-child ratio requirements. However, having an extra set of hands to help rock or feed a baby or to play with a toddler would make such a difference for staff at the learning centers, Ridder said.

Volunteers must have passion for children

And if a volunteer has a special skill set that could be a new curriculum for the children, even better, Ridder said. If a Give 5 volunteer is a retired art teacher, that person will be encouraged to use those talents to do art projects with the kiddos, for example.

“It’s going to give (staff) extra hands in the classroom,” Ridder said. “And it’s really nice to bring different programs into the center. It expands their curriculum. It expands what they are doing in the classroom.”

Dr. Doug McNeal, a retired developmental pediatrician and member of the Mayor’s Commission for Children, is excited to be part of the upcoming presentation to Give 5.

“Here’s a ready resource of people that are highly motivated and want to give back to the community,” McNeal said. “And most seniors have an interest in young children, particularly if they have grandchildren themselves.

Dr. Doug McNeal is a member of the Mayor’s Commission for Children. He has been working on bringing this program to light since before the pandemic began. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

“I’ll speak from a personal basis being a senior myself and having two grandchildren who are a mere 12 hours away from Springfield,” he said. “Here we have potential of offering seniors to be around children.

“If you’ve been around grandparents, you realize what they usually talk about,” he added, smiling. “Their grandkids.”

Brigitte Marrs, executive director of the Mayor’s Commission for Children, explained the effort will start with the Cox Health learning centers because of the convenient locations and flexible hours. Volunteer classroom aides will go through Cox’s usual volunteer screening process.

Volutneers will receive training from CoxHealth professional prior to starting.

If this program is successful, Marrs said there are several other licensed child care providers “waiting in the wings” to be part of the Give 5 volunteer program.

The commission plans to eventually present its idea to former Give 5 participants, as well.

Give 5, a program of the United Way of the Ozarks, launched in December 2017. To date, about 350 people have participated in the Give 5 program.

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. She covers housing, homelessness, domestic violence and early childhood, among other public affairs issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald