Mama Lissa’s Tiny Tot University: Blessed During COVID-19

Selfie of a smiling woman

“I’m so grateful to everyone who has helped us out during this time,” said Melissa (Missy) Hamrick, director of Cleveland County’s Mama Lissa’s Tiny Tot University. She says she knows her experience during the COVID-19 pandemic has been different than many due to the financial and personal support she and her staff have received.

Missy went on, “I’m very fortunate because I am an essential worker and I’ve been working since day one, and we are lucky that no one has gotten sick.”

Her Early Head Start and NC Pre-K teachers were sent home at the state’s order, which meant her staff went from 15 to seven overnight. She let those seven teachers know that they were her top priority and she would only remain open if they felt comfortable doing so. They did, and her site became a service for the children of emergency personnel when the state closed child care to other families.

Missy explained, “We went from having 96 enrolled before closure to about 40 that were children of essential workers, but I still kept my teachers. I was able to get the PPP loan, and the state stepped in to give significant help. I had not raised my rates in years, so the amount they offered really enabled me to keep the teachers employed. I even gave my teachers that were here the whole time a temporary $2 per hour raise, ‘hazard pay’ until end of June. We got a center grant from the state and the teachers received bonuses of $950 for two months that made a huge difference. Even having our consultant, Tracy Clark, call consistently in the first few weeks to see how she could help gave us more security in being open.”

After receiving all this help, she tried to pay it forward by not charging two essential personnel who did not qualify for the emergency subsidy and by charging her regular parents half price to retain their slots. She’s happy that her families have returned and they are at 100% of summer-level capacity. She knows this is not necessarily what the field is experiencing in general.

“My center is just blessed. I don’t know how else to say it.”

—Melissa (missy) hamrick

Despite being able to stay solvent with this assistance, the process hasn’t been easy. They are carefully following all the state instructions and CDC guidelines. She feels like the environment she is offering is clean and safe, but she still has concerns about being open to the public.

Missy said, “I get emotional thinking that I am putting my staff’s lives on the line. I’m used to having the lives of children in my hands, that’s the job. But now I’m responsible for the lives of my staff as well.”

COVID-19 assistance is not the only monetary benefit they’ve received. She is a Child Care WAGE$® recipient and she has staff that participate on WAGE$ and others who participate on Infant-Toddler Educator AWARD$®.

Missy said, “These programs are very important to us. The teachers KNOW when their supplements are coming. They depend on that money. Some use it for household needs. Some use it for personal breaks to rejuvenate after a stressful job. Just because we received the COVID money this one time, it doesn’t change what these supplements mean to us. For those who received it during COVID, it was an additional level of security because no one knows what is going to happen in the future. We would all love to thank the funders of WAGE$ and AWARD$. This money ends up being experiences for the teachers and food on the table for their families. They are thankful that it is there.”

Many five-star programs in North Carolina remain closed and may not open in the future. When asked how she has been able to sustain her program, Missy shared, “My staff make my building run daily. They are what make my center. My name is on the building, but their hearts are inside the building.”