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River Valley Child Development Services is seen on April 8, 2021, in Huntington.

HUNTINGTON — River Valley Child Development Services has been innovating child care in the Tri-State for 50 years.

Dr. Norma Gray founded River Valley Child Development Services, RVCDS, in 1971 after being asked by the West Virginia Department of Education to design a kindergarten program. After a year of the pilot program, the state took kindergarten statewide.

Though women were still just entering the workforce in force, Gray still found there was a need for child care, and thus started RVCDS, one of the first nationally accredited child-care programs in the country.

Today, RVCDS is still innovating child care. The most recent development has been RV Cares, which is a state-of-the-art program that cares for children born to mothers with substance use disorder.

They don’t provide much direct care these days, but do provide a lot of training for providers across the state. They also facilitate the Birth to Three program for the region and LINK, which provides stipends for child-care assistance. RVCDS runs two afterschool programs for Ona and Nichols elementary schools.

“That’s the key — we are always trying to find the need in the community,” said Suzi Brodof, executive director of RVCDS.

When the pandemic started, they opened the afterschool programs all day. The program was a godsend for parents like Zelideth Rivas.

The Marshall University professor and her high school teacher husband had just applied to become foster parents when the pandemic began. By the start of the fall semester, they had a placement — a first-grade girl. They decided to keep her in school versus total virtual so she could get the vital socialization skills she needed, but even those who went to school at that time had to have virtual school half the week.

“At first, we think we can do everything,” Rivas said. “’I got this covered.’ But I could not keep up with my school work. My husband couldn’t keep up with his school work. It was just not possible to have a full-time job, supervise learning and everything else.”

The Rivases found a child-care facility that would accept their foster daughter, but the day ended at 2:30 p.m. For a college professor with several afternoon classes, that didn’t really work, but Rivas said she made it work. However, a lack of employees sent that schedule into mayhem and it became too hard for her family.

Then, the pandemic took a turn for the worse and everything shut down. The university was entirely virtual. Her husband’s classes were entirely online. Their daughter’s classes were entirely online.

“It would have been comical if it hadn’t been so stressful,” she said.

That was when she found River Valley.

“The bonus was when I called, I said a few things: She’s in foster care and has behavioral issues,” Rivas said. “’We are still working on the behaviors and mental health. There are ups and downs, and we don’t have the whole picture.’ They said, ‘Great, would you like to start a communication notebook with us?’ I was like, ‘You can do that?’ We had immediate open lines of communication, discussing any incidents and monitoring her progress. With that, I knew they knew what they were talking about.”

In January of this year, the pandemic programing had to shut down, again because of lack of staffing. Rivas said it was a hard day for her and her daughter. But she was able to enroll in the summer camp program, and her daughter ran out of the car the first day to hug her teacher, who she had missed.

“I literally cried in the car,” Rivas said. “Those were the bonds she had formed, and they are important. It’s about trusting people with your child, and first of all, that is a big deal. To maneuver the intricacies of last year’s education system was just — honestly, they went above and beyond. They continue to go above and beyond.”

The specialized training the teachers have at RVCDS helped Rivas’ daughter open up about her past and some of her behaviors.

“They were meeting her exactly where she needed,” Rivas said.

Brodof said the training of child-care workers to better work with children like Rivas’ is all part of Gray’s original mission for her organization.

“One of the things Norma was very passionate about was trying to improve the quality of care for children,” Brodof said. “She was always looking for ways to do that better. She was a visionary way before her time. Many of the things she started are now commonplace. We had five different child-care centers in Huntington, Hamlin, Point Pleasant. We began having afterschool programs — we were the first in the area to do afterschool. We had eight programs in eight elementary schools. We still have two right now, but many of the schools decided to take those programs on themselves.

“I talked with Norma — I worked under her for a few years before she retired — I asked, ‘Aren’t you discouraged schools are doing this?’ She said no. We led the way and we were able to model how to do it best. It was important to her to improve child care all the way around, and (the afterschool programs) were one way to do that.”

River Valley facilitates training across the state to better help child-care workers, many of whom do not have bachelor’s degrees. They are the point for COVID-19 funding, and distribute funding to child-care facilities that need extra assistance, whether it be to pay employees or reimburse for safety measures like masks and cleaning products.

“Salaries for child-care workers are so low,” Brodof said. “They had no choice to be front-line workers, and many are choosing not to go back to work. With the help of DHHR and the COVID-19 CARES money, we are trying to help. Families still need child care, but some places don’t have anything available. Child-care deserts are a real thing, and some can’t go back to work because they don’t have child care. As an agency, we can help.”

To learn more about the services provided by River Valley Child Development Services, visit rvcds.org or call 304-523-3417.

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