Daycare provider Darlene Mount reads a book to children at a New Jersey YMCA during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The children are in a modified circle that allows for proper social distancing.
Courtesy of Andrea Plaza
June 16, 2020 11:23 AM EDT

Darlene Mount, 50, has been a childcare provider for more than 25 years. She is currently caring for the children of emergency personnel at the YMCA of Greater Monmouth County, New Jersey during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The state has the second-highest number of novel coronavirus cases and deaths in the U.S.

Part of what I love about my job as a daycare provider during normal times is the fact that I can hug them, that I can give them that emotional support—because in essence, we’re like their second parents when they’re with us. I like to comfort them if they want to sit on my lap and talk to me. But because of COVID-19, I can’t be hands on right now. It’s very difficult, especially if they’re crying.

Things are different in other ways, too. When the children are being dropped off, their parents can’t come into the building. They’re being dropped off with strange people they don’t know at first. They have to have their temperature taken, then they’re walked into a specific classroom they will stay in most of the day. I separate the room so each child has a specific play area that allows for social distancing. They also can only play with one toy at a time so we can disinfect it when they’re done. That’s hard for them because they want to share and they want to play with each other: they want to hug each other, and they want to run around with each other. And I have to tell them they can’t do that. So that’s a lot of stress and anxiety for them—some of them are having a very difficult time adjusting to this new normal that we have.

But we do our best here. We’re trying to comfort them in every way we possibly can. We do a lot of activities during the day to try to keep them busy and to make it as normal as possible. We go outside, we go for walks. I incorporate yoga three times a week in my classroom so they can de-stress. I found this great website that does Wizard of Oz yoga and Trolls yoga—they love that even if they can’t do it, it just brings a smile to their faces.

Because COVID-19 has limited how and when children can socialize, some of the things we used to do on a normal basis are even more exciting now. Like when we used to take the kids outside, it was just a time of the day. Now, outside is a whole different world. They’re listening to the birds and they’re seeing the butterflies. Recently, when we were walking down a path, one little boy said, “We’re in the forest!” because there were all these trees. Their imaginations are heightened so much more now. Even though we have to social distance, they just feel freedom outside.

Some of the children we are taking care of right now are new, and are coming to the YMCA because their normal childcare facilities and schools are closed. One of the first children who came to the emergency childcare here speaks a different language. The family’s from Russia and she spoke very, very little English. But within about two weeks, she just came out of her shell. She sings English and she talks more in English now. But she always says to me, “Hey, you.” And I say to her, “My name is not ‘Hey, you.’ What’s my name?” Because I know now she knows my name. And she’ll look at me and she has this strange, beautiful way with her eyes and she just gives you this look and the eyebrows go in and she’ll say: “You’re Miss Darlene. Darlene. Darlene.”

YMCA childcare provider Darlene Mount wears a mask and gloves to keep children safe amid the 2020 coronavirus pandemic
Courtesy of Andrea Plaza

One of my favorite parts of the job is watching the kids do things for the first time. I usually work in the toddler room, so my kids are learning to walk for the first time, sometimes going to the bathroom on the potty for the first time, and feeding themselves for the first time. Them counting for the first time and learning a song for the first time are also big things for me. I enjoy watching them grow and teaching them. When I ask questions and they can answer them, I love to see the smile on their faces when they get it right. It’s hard that they can’t see my smile now, though. I’ve learned to smile with my eyes because they can’t see my mouth through my face mask. There are also times when I’m in the back of the room, far away from them, that I will pull it down if they’re doing something great so they can see me smile at them.

Our utmost priority is keeping them healthy so other essential workers can keep going to work and serving our community. It makes me happy that parents can drop off the children here and know that they’re safe, we’re nurturing them, and they don’t have to worry about their children. I’m doing my part to help everybody that needs our help here: Grocery store workers, essential workers, doctors, whatever they are. It gives me great pride to do it, and to help them get through this difficult time.

Especially with younger children, daycare can lay that groundwork for all the different things that they’re going to do in life. And if they can remember during this horrible experience that they’ve had to go through that they came to the YMCA and Miss Darlene made them smile because she jumped around doing yoga, and that’s something they can remember—something positive that we did here. That’s all I could ever ask for.

But the children are helping me get through the chaos and uncertainty, too. When I come here, I don’t think about the outside world. When I come here, I just want to see the children happy and smiling. I don’t think about anything in the outside world when I’m here. But I don’t think of myself as a hero. I think of myself as lucky to still be able to do the job that I love, and I consider myself lucky that I’m able to contribute any small way I can to help our country survive this pandemic.

—As told to Abby Vesoulis

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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