By Carolyn Bahm

Daily Journal

Parents of kindergartners and first-graders are humming right along after successfully weathering child care gaps at Christmas and during spring break. Then comes that first summer.

Mom and Dad still have to work, and Grandma’s too frail for babysitting chores. Big Sister’s got a summer job. So who’s watching little Johnny while school is out?

The leap from a day care center’s year-round child supervision into the world of dictated school-year breaks is a big one. Finding child care during school vacations is a common dilemma that two-career families face.

Some companies help by slating their down time during the school year breaks. Schools try to help by announcing far in advance when the school breaks will be. (Thomas Street Elementary School in Tupelo, for example, publishes a free calendar at the first of the year that details all school breaks, report card issuance dates and other major events.)

Still, bridging that long summer gap can be a parental schedule-buster.

Years ago, most mothers could stay home and say, “What is a summer child care gap?” Today, both parents typically have jobs outside the home. Janna Hickman, who teaches a multi-age class at Thomas Street Elementary School in Tupelo, recalled that about 12 of 24 students had homemaker mothers when she began teaching a dozen years ago. Today, she estimated the number is more like four or five stay-at-home moms out of an entire classroom.

Missy Sheffield is director of The Kid Company in Tupelo, a corporate day care facility for children ages six weeks through pre-kindergarten. She said her center’s parents commonly ask her for advice. “They’re lost. They don’t know what to do.”

She often directs them to Tupelo’s popular Church After School Association. The CASA program operates after-school programs at area churches, and it cares for a maximum of 135 children at the three summer program sites.

This year is the first in CASA’s history that no 9- to 12-year-old children from the waiting list got into the summer program, said CASA director Joan Warren. Those already enrolled in the after-school program get first shot at the available spaces, and they filled the summer roster this year.

Another summer child care solution is family-based. That worked for several years when Terry and Cindy Hayes of Belden placed their oldest child, Brittany, with her grandmother. Now Brittany is 10, and the family’s needs have evolved: Grandmother needs to care for the ailing great-grandmother, and the child’s interests also have changed. Brittany is looking forward to time with 15-year-old Laura Hopkins, a teen-age sitter who’ll play games and keep pace with her interests this summer.

Brittany goes to the CASA after-school program and had the option of joining the summer program, but her mother wanted to give her a break from routine. Mrs. Hayes is crafting a summer master plan: Laura goes on a mission trip in June, and Brittany will have one week of camp during the summer months. The Hayes’ family vacation will consume another week. One grandmother in Jacksonville, Fla., keeps Brittany for a week, and the other grandmother who lives nearby will get briefer visits throughout the summer. Brittany’s father is off on Tuesdays and will supervise his daughter himself on those days.

A less-organized mom might be daunted by all the planning necessary, but Mrs. Hayes is optimistic. It’s worth the scheduling chores to tailor a flexible plan for her child’s “off” season. Let Brittany sleep late and set her own pace, she reasoned.

“Children need some time just to be kids and play,” she said. “Even though we don’t think about our children getting stressed, they do. And they need some lying-down time, too.”

Picking the right options

Some parents prefer to get one child caregiver for the entire summer, while others like the variety of stitching together a list of different camps, sitters and vacation schedules for all-summer child care coverage.

Hickman had one caution: To reduce your child’s anxiety, keep his schedule consistent whenever possible. “Sometimes they get shuffled around so much that sometimes they don’t know who to mind. They don’t know the routines of the person they’re staying with and what they’re supposed to get into and not get into. It can be confusing. Consistency keeps them better behaved.”

The following listings are not the only child care programs or ideas available in Northeast Mississippi, but the categories may give parents a few ideas for summer child care:

– Private arrangements: Typically these are grandparents, older brothers and sisters, or babysitters in the home. Are you having trouble finding a sitter? Contact your church’s youth leader, Hickman advised. Many keep a year-round list of youth volunteers, or they can offer your summer job interview to the teens.

Teen sitters have to be chosen carefully, Warren cautioned. Teens may not be reliably available for sitting. They may not watch the child closely (such as dropping a youngster off at the pool and leaving to run errands). Also, if the teen is close in age to the child, the babysitter may have trouble exerting authority when needed. Warren recommends hiring college-age students or other older sitters.

Brenda Jackson, recreation director for Tupelo’s Department of Parks and Recreation, also suggested finding out how much a teen sitter will do. Will a wide variety of activities be planned?

Hickman had another important question for teen-age sitters: Are they old enough to drive, and will they have an available car? This can help if your child needs transportation to swimming lessons.

– City programs: Check with your city officials for details on day camps. In Tupelo, the Department of Parks and Recreation has operated day camps for more than 18 years at two sites, Rockwell Center and Northside Recreation Center. Up to 90 children are supervised weekly from 7:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. by school teachers on summer break, trained college students and other experienced personnel. Activities include arts and crafts, daily swimming, indoor and outdoor games, weekly field trips, educational events and quiet time. Those eligible range from children entering first through sixth grades the next school year. The cost is $35 weekly per Tupelo child and $45 weekly for all others. Some day camp scholarships financed by the Tupelo Junior Auxiliary are available; contact the Auxiliary directly or apply through the parks and recreation department.

A special program for children with physical and/or mental disabilities, Camp Discover, is also slated for the summer. Registration for both camps begins at 5:30-8:30 p.m. May 7 and continues all summer long. For details on either day camp or Camp Discover, call 841-6440.

– Child care facilities: Some area day care centers also operate after-school and summer programs for older children. For example, Tender Care in Tupelo has a capacity of 103, reserving about 30 of those spots for after-school and summer program children up through the seventh grade. The program includes regular trips to the pool, bowling alley, movies, library and park, as well as academic lessons and other recreational activities. The cost is $55 per week and includes transportation to activities such as swimming lessons (although lesson fees are separate).

Floristene Gladney, a retired elementary teacher who operates the center, said she saw a need for older child care during the parents’ work day. “It’s like a home away from home for them.”

Other centers may offer similar services; call individual facilities for details.

– Church-based programs: While CASA is already full for this summer, you can ask to be placed on next summer’s waiting list; children through the sixth grade are eligible. This year’s program operates June 10-Aug. 2 and includes one or more weekly trips to the pool, movies, bowling alley and skating. The cost is $43 per week plus a one-time $15 registration fee and a $30 activity fee to cover admission costs for all summer events.

Warren said, “When they go back to school, they’re going to have the same bragging rights (about what they did) as a child whose parents were able to stay home with them all summer.”

For details, call the CASA office at 842-3887.

Several individual churches also operate one-day summer programs each week, and many do not exclude children whose families are not church members. For example, St. Luke First United Methodist Church in Tupelo operates Terrific Tuesdays in June and July. The program is open to all children, and activities include fellowship, crafts and singing. For details on similar programs, contact your church.

Vacation Bible School is another terrific choice, a Bible education and summer recreation program of one to two weeks at most churches. For details, contact area churches or watch for VBS announcements in the Daily Journal.

– School-based programs: Some elementary and junior high schools use their facilities to house summer day camps, such as a science clinic planned in Tupelo. For details, call the Tupelo Public Schools’ office at 841-8850 or, in other areas, contact your school’s office.

– Salvation Army day camp: Day camps provide supervised child care and team sports experience at various Salvation Army locations. For details in Tupelo, call Todd Brewer at 680-2757.

– College camps: These can range from sports, band and cheerleading camps for older children to multi-age camps for other hobby interests. For example, Itawamba Community College in Fulton is hosting a computer camp for children ages 9 to 15 on June 9-14 (day camp only). For details on various camps, call individual universities or watch for announcements in the Daily Journal.

– Scout camps: These can be overnight events or day camps. For example, the Prairie Girl Scouts Council in Tupelo will be hosting one and two-week overnight camps for school-age girls through age 12 at Camp Tik-A-Witha in Van Vleet this summer. Membership in the Girl Scouts is not necessary. Events will include camping, canoeing, swimming, crafts, hiking, horseback riding, night-owl activities and guidance from experienced counselors, including some international guests. A couple of sessions have already filled. Open house is slated for 2-4 p.m. April 14. For details on this program, call 844-7577.

For more information in other areas, call your nearest office of the Girl Scouts of the USA or the Boy Scouts of America.

– Hobby camps: Does your child tap dance, tumble or enjoy other after-school activities? Check with the program’s teachers for details on any special camps offered. For example, the Tupelo Academy of Gymnastics is slating a recreational gymnastics summer camp for June 24-28. The fee is $125, and activities include stretching, camp dances, Olympic events, games and more serious gymnastics training from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily. Enrollment is limited to 50 children. For details at TAG, call 844-6585; for similar events elsewhere, contact your child’s own program.

– Leaving the child home alone: Postponing this as long as possible is recommended. Hickman said children vary in maturity, but she generally doesn’t recommend full days alone for teens younger than 13 or 14. “They really have not made up their minds if they want to be a child or a teen-ager at that age.”

Whatever parents choose, Northeast Mississippi is fortunate to have a variety of civic and private summer programs for child care, Jackson said. “All of working together makes things better for the children.”

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