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‘Every Tool Necessary’

Children’s Coalition Launches COVID-19 Initiatives

Kirstin Harris and Adam Padd from Erie 2 Chautauqua Cattaraugus BOCES flank Chautauqua Connections Children's Coalition independent service coordinator, Patrick Smeraldo and Chautauqua County Executive PJ Wendel, who helped coordinate mask donations for the coalition's COVID-19 initiatives. Submitted photo

Patrick Smeraldo views his role as an independent service coordinator for Chautauqua Connections’ Children’s Coalition as that of a “traffic cop” working to direct kids to the best possible community resources.

“We’re conveners: we bring people together,” said Smeraldo, who has worked to form partnerships with community organizations and resources for the past 12 years for the coalition, an arm of Chautauqua Connections, Inc. — itself borne of a collaboration between The Resource Center and Chautauqua Opportunities in 1993.

“If you made the best cookie in the world and I made the best frosting, I could bang my head against the wall and try to figure out a good cookie and you could bang your head against the wall to come up with the best frosting, or we could just work together to make the world’s best cookie,” he added.

The fostering of those partnerships has taken on a new role in recent days — with area students due to return to school in one way or another in the fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the coalition is launching a three-tiered plan to build a system of care for children, from ages 3 to 18, and those who work with children, partnering with Chautauqua Connections, Chautauqua Advocacy Program, Prevention Works, The Resilience Tree and Chautauqua County.

“There are agencies in Chautauqua County that are experts in their fields,” Smeraldo said. “They can deliver services to the kids of this county that one person can’t do. We all have to work together and it’s all about collaboration.”

Chief among these initiatives is a collection campaign for two washable/reusable face masks or face coverings for all children in childcare environments and public schools within Chautauqua County for those who wish to participate.

“We’re not quite sure what the governor’s plan to reopen schools will look like,” Smeraldo said, “But, all of the plans that I’ve seen to date include the inclusion of PPE for kids to at least have on hand.”

With the schools facing budget crises, not knowing whether they’re going to have half the students or all the students, whatever it’s going to look like, I just thought it would be a good idea if we put it out to some districts and say, ‘Look, would this be something you’d be interested in if we can arrange some washable and reusable face coverings?'”

Immediately, Jamestown, Fredonia, Chautauqua Lake and Frewsburg school districts showed interest. As did the Erie 2 Chautauqua Cattaraugus BOCES, who began welcoming students back last week for summer school and were in need of 1,000 face masks which the coalition organized thanks to the help of County Executive PJ Wendel.

“He and his staff up there have been extremely helpful up there to help get us more masks,” Smeraldo said.

“I’m glad that the county could assist the Children’s Coalition and BOCES with reusable masks to kick off the first phase of their program,” Wendel said in a statement. “As a longtime educator, I know how important it is to ensure the safety of our students and staff as educational programs begin to open back up.”

“This is all preventative, but I have not seen a plan yet that says PPE will not be in the mix,” Smeraldo said. “It’s just one less thing that parents and school districts would have to worry about, so that’s why we took that on.”

The coalition’s initiatives also include two other tiers: the first being a public awareness campaign to let the public know the measures daycares are taking in order to welcome back kids safely.

“This was borne out of our partnership with Sue Marker and the Childcare Council,” Smeraldo said. “They have specific guidelines for what childcare facilities have to do to be able to open and accept children and all the mandates they have to follow. That’s important to know and I want parents to know that all of the childcare facilities in Chautauqua County are taking extreme measures to welcome kids back, so it’s safe to send your kid back.”

The final initiative includes COVID-education and helping to train daycares and schools on the health and safety requirements as well as the social and emotional issues that students and staff might be dealing with during these unprecedented times.

“A couple years ago, all of the facilities and educational institutions I was working with were saying that they were having trouble with kids and their social and emotional issues,” Smeraldo said. “These are little ones up to high school kids. Everybody just said it, they really didn’t prescribe something.”

A way to aide these concerns have been using mindfulness and movement techniques and resilience strategies as well as a partnership with Prevention Works and the Child Advocacy Program.

“When kids return, there are going to be a lot of safety procedures we’re going to follow and then there’s going to be a lot of social and emotional questions that they’re going to have,” Smeraldo added. “We need to be prepared for that, so that’s mainly what we’re trying to do with this project.”

“The basic gist of it is We want everyone to know that it’ll be safe to go to daycares, here are some masks and if you’re not prepared we can help you, and here’s an education piece that goes along with it, too to help not only the children but the staff, too,” he added. “We also have to be aware of kids coming back with some heavy-duty issues that need to be dealt with.”

And though the coalition will work to help children navigate through these unprecedented times, its mission does not change: giving kids the opportunity to do well.

“This is just for the kids … Everything I try to do is for the kids,” Smeraldo said. “I just believe as an adult that it’s our job to provide every tool necessary for a kid to be able to succeed.”

Smeraldo said the coalition is still looking to help school districts and childcare centers with masks and that any who are interested can reach out to him at patricksmeraldo@gmail.com. There is also a collection box at the United Way offices in Jamestown and Dunkirk if interested parties would like to drop off mask donations there, as well.

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