Which organization cares for over six hundred children at various locations across the three counties of Northern New York all the while keeping them active, stimulated, safe, well-nourished, and healthy year-round? The Plattsburgh YMCA, of course! This buzzing hive of child care and educational programming has been serving the North Country’s parents, grand- parents and guardians for over 50 years, and its role in the community continues to grow.
Justin Ihne, CEO of the YMCA of Plattsburgh, joined the organization in January of 2017. He brought with him nine years of experience at the YMCA of Kingston, NY running after-school programs and day camps, and four years as CEO of the Northern Berkshire YMCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. He also brought an appreciation for the history and impact the YMCA and its programs have on communities.
Ihne understands that the Y comes with an image. “Generations of kids come through the doors,” he said. “We are present at every stage in the life of a child, from six weeks to when they enter school and then after school programs, camps, swim lessons and youth sports. We want to bring a fresh set of eyes to everything.” To Ihne, that means investing in the YMCA’s various facilities including Bright Beginnings, Camp Jericho and the main hub at 17 Oak Street, upgrading equipment and investing in staffing and partnerships all to benefit the children and families the organization serves.
Bright Beginnings’ location at 62 Northern Avenue was built with child care in mind. Tucked away on a quiet side street of the old Plattsburgh Air Force Base, its exterior belies the bustle of activity inside. Bright Beginnings serves infants six weeks to 12 months, Waddlers ages 12to 18 months, Toddlers ages 18 to 24 months, Toddler II ages 2-3 years, Preschool I age 3 years and Pre-K ages 4 to 5. Hours of operation are 6:45 am to 5:30 pm, Monday through Friday. Each room has large viewing windows, low sinks and built-in cubbies and is equipped with age appropriate toys and access to its own playground. During the summer months, the building houses a 10-week pro- gram for school age children from age five (They must have completed kindergarten) to age 10.
Bright Beginnings Child Care Director Jacqueline Prather has been employed by the YMCA since 1996, and at this location for 18 years. Prather is proud of the quality of the care and education the center provides. “Each new parent leaving an infant with us needs to know that we will care for and meet the needs of their child,” she emphasized. “We give them that extra care and let them know they can call or drop by any time of day.” Qualifications for Bright Beginnings staff range from Child Development Associate (CDA) to Masters’ degree in Early Childhood Education. With a current maximum capacity of 70 children, there is a waiting list for all age groups.
A source of pride is the Bright Beginnings kitchen, where Manager Cheryl Godfrey has been providing nutritious meals that adhere to USDA guidelines for the past five years. “We provide breakfast, lunch and a p.m. snack,” she explained. While Godfrey will occasionally acquiesce to convenience with the ever-popular pizza bites, most items are made from scratch. “Our chicken nuggets are made right here with chicken breast breaded in panko—baked not fried,” she said with obvious pride. Her fresh fruit, sharp cheddar macaroni and cheese and ziti are just a few of the kids’ favorite dishes. Parents who ask for Cheryl’s recipes are often told when they make them at home, “It doesn’t taste like Cheryl’s!” Baked oatmeal and soups in winter on Wednesday swim days are a hit. “Everyone says the building smells so good,” she added.
A twelve week Eat Well/Play Hard program, directed by Bonnie Schultz, aims to prevent childhood obesity and reduce long-term risks for chronic disease through the promotion of healthy dietary information.
The Y recently obtained a grant to upgrade the kitchen at Bright Beginnings, and staff is eagerly anticipating new appliances, including a dishwasher and an oven.
Prather noted that Bright Beginnings participates in the Quality Stars Program of voluntary improvement, a program that provides guidance and direction to early learning and development programs and providers. That guidance includes strategic planning, creation of budgets and better business practices.
Y WEE CARE PRE-SCHOOL
Stephanie Purcell is the Director of the Y Wee Care Preschool program, a half day preschool for three and four-year olds with a class limit of 12 and 14, respectively. Purcell has worked for the YMCA since 2003, with time spent at Camp Jericho, the After-School Program, Bright Beginnings and Y Wee Care as a preschool teacher. Hours of operation for Y Wee Care range from 9:00 – 11:45 am and follow the same calendar as the public-school system. The quality of interaction in the program is high, with a curriculum that includes music and song, science and nature, both dramatic and sensory play, and large and small motor development. Children participate in weekly half-hour swim classes as well.
SCHOOL AGE CHILD CARE
Tina Santor is the YMCA’s School Age Child Care Director. A graduate of SUNY Plattsburgh and an 18-year veteran of the Y she is a former site director at Peru Elementary’s before and after care school program and site director at Momot Elementary through the 21st Century grant program. Santor has been boots on the ground in the world of after care, the best experience for someone now responsible for staffing and coordinating all the Y’s after school sites.” When she is out in the community Santor loves being recognized by the many children who have gone through her programs. “They run up and hug me,” she said with a smile.
Current sites for before and after care of school age children include Beekmantown, Peru, Cumberland Head, Bailey Avenue, Momot, the YMCA and the First Presbyterian Church. Peru and Beekmantown parents drop off students for care while all others are transported by official YMCA vehicles. After care at all locations can include homework time or a study hall period so students can stay caught up on schoolwork.
Of all the Y’s programs, Camp Jericho continues to be the most coveted enrollment area in the region for child care. “This year we added 36 spots and they were filled in three weeks,” Ihne said. “We ended up with the same number of people on the waiting list. We currently serve 120 children but we have 400 acres at Camp Jericho and could accommodate 300. The community needs it. It is not uncommon that kids who come in as campers go through the system and come back as counselors.”
Ihne credits the YMCA staff for running its myriad child care programs like a well-oiled machine. “We could not make it without our amazing staff. They are the ones who work hard creating lesson plans, coming in early, staying late. They are the hardest working people I know and they know their stuff.”
Challenges for the Y child care initiatives going forward include space and staffing. “We continue to need more space for after school programming. Parents are trying to get back in the work force and they need child care and transportation,” Ihne emphasized. Additional concerns include caring for the region’s teens. “As a community we don’t do enough for teens.” Ihne continued. “We need to get better in that area. How can we fill that gap?” he asked. “One option is rolling out teen programs like the Leaders Club, a national YMCA program for youth that is community service based and helps teens discover their full potential as leaders. That is just one piece. We can also open up time in the building for teens to use the gym and racquetball court.”
Ihne is working on creating a budget for capital improvements but when all is said and done, it is all about the kids. “The kids in the programs are well adjusted, picking up skills including social skills, reading skills, and gross motor skills that are going to help them in the future,” emphasized Prather.
The warmth of the Y’s directors for the children they serve is palpable. When Prather opens the door to a toddler room at Bright Beginnings, she is greeted with smiling faces and tiny little hands waving back at her. “Relationships are built along the way and we stay connected,” she said. When after care students are delivered via the Y’s vehicles to the Oak Street location for swim lessons, they pass by the window of Ihne’s office, yelling “Hello, Mr. Justin!” and waving furiously. It doesn’t get any better than that.