In the earliest days of COVID-19, James Mullen would sit in his office at the Norwich Family YMCA and hear near-silence. Like all “non-essential” organizations in New York at that time, the Y had halted its programs in mid-March and shut its doors.
One service stayed open, though. “We offered child care for emergency and essential workers,” said Mullen, the Y’s executive director. “That first two or three weeks, it was very quiet, with just a couple of kids. But we knew it was meaningful, impactful and needed.”
In April, the Y got a call from Chenango Memorial Hospital. “They needed help with child care,” Mullen said. So the Y, which had plenty of available slots, took in children of hospital employees.
Then Chenango Memorial pitched in with a service of its own, Mullen recalled. “They said, ‘We’re providing meals up here. Maybe we can provide lunch for the kids, too.’”
As time went on and more workplaces reopened, business picked up at the child care center. “I’d be in my office, and I could hear laughter, or basketballs dribbling in the gymnasium,” Mullen said.
Things were still far from normal, though. With most programs still suspended and membership way down, the Y saw revenues plunge. Offering child care for essential workers was the right thing to do, Mullen said. But keeping the building open and staff on payroll put a perilous strain on the budget.
Luckily, strong community support, including a $6,142 grant from the Community Foundation, helped keep the Y afloat in those tough times.
Throughout the pandemic, the Y has sought creative ways to serve evolving community needs. For instance, in September 2020, as local schools reopened with in-person, virtual or hybrid instruction, the Y introduced “enrichment child care” for students from nine school districts. Some kids used internet connections in the building to attend remote school; others did homework at the facility.
The Y also provided space in a racquetball court for a monthly food pantry run by Helping Hands of Norwich. Launched in January 2020, that partnership stopped briefly in March because of the pandemic but resumed in April and kept going. About 100 families attend each month.
Companies, churches and individuals from throughout the community aid the pantry as volunteers and donors. “Every third Monday of the month we’re bringing in new product and preparing individual bags for the third Thursday giveaway,” Mullen said. “It was another opportunity, and it just grew.”