Paula Johnson moved to Chicago in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, with her two sons to take a new job. She was in a new city on her own. It was good, though, said Johnson, until her sons’ childcare center had to close temporarily because of the pandemic. Johnson went online to search for emergency childcare and found the Maryville Crisis Nursery, a center that provides free emergency care to children from birth through age 6, 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. “I don’t have a support system here and I don’t have any family here,” Johnson said. “They were so nice.” The crisis nursery, 6650 W. Irving Park Road, is one of seven across Illinois. It operates a 24-hour crisis helpline; the child care center, which maintains strict staff-to-child ratios, offers children healthy meals and snacks, active play and age-appropriate learning activities; crisis counseling; referrals for community support; and parent support programs at the Augustus Tolton Peace Center, 5645 W. Corcoran Place. Johnson said her sons, who were 1 and 2 years old when they first went to the center, like going to the nursery. She loves it too, because she knows they are safe. When they leave, the nursery sends them home with extra supplies like Pull-Ups, wipes, picture books and winter coats. “They love it there,” she said. “I love it. I’ve recommended it for people.” While children can stay at the center for up to 72 hours at a time, executive director Amy Kendal said during the pandemic, they saw families needing care for more days, but shorter periods of time. Children coming for the day can stay anywhere from four to 10 hours, and families can access the nursery up to 30 times in a year. The nursery accommodates up to eight children at a time. In both 2020 and 2021, it served more than 800 children, Kendal said. There were situations where children’s usual childcare centers were unexpectedly closed, or when a parent had to take a grandparent to a medical appointment, and because of COVID-19 protocols, children were no longer allowed to accompany them, Kendal said. “We really responded to the needs of the community by supporting the essential workers,” Kendal said, who sometimes found their childcare arrangements had fallen through. “We were able to support a CTA bus driver, we were able to support a Chicago police officer, so they could keep working. We can be a bit of a backup when families have to go to a prenatal appointment or go to a job interview.” There have also been situations where a parent is trying to find a safe place for a child while she leaves a situation where there is domestic abuse, Kendal said, or the parent needs medical attention, or, especially during the pandemic, the family had to make funeral plans. Parents can be referred to the center by medical providers, social service agencies, friends or find it on their own, as Johnson did. They start by calling the helpline, where a staff member talks with them to find out what the situation is and figures out how the crisis nursery can help. Sonia, who asked that her last name not be used, was referred by the Illinois Department of Public Health after the childcare center her 1-year-old daughter went to unexpectedly closed. She also used it for her 6-year-old when her school was closed because of COVID-19. “It was perfect,” said Sonia, an accounting assistant. “They were so nice, and they always ask if I have everything I need.” “We were able to respond to many families during the pandemic with someone available on the phone, just to be able to talk through their situations with them and help them figure out what resources they do have,” Kendal said. “What we know is that with the pandemic, the mental health of both the parent and the children is very fragile, and we’ve been very sensitive in supporting families over the phone, providing donations in terms of diapers and other baby items.” At times, she said, families had to be turned away because the center had reached its capacity. In those situations, staff prioritize families whose health and safety is at risk, by, for example, taking a child from someone trying to leave an abusive situation and asking someone with a job interview to try to reschedule. “That has worked,” Kendal said. “It’s not a perfect system, but we’ve been able to navigate those. Sometimes when someone is in that situation, they’re not thinking through what all the options are. We work with people on [the idea that] asking for help is a sign or strength. Sometimes they’re afraid to ask their sister or they’ve been asking many times.” One of the biggest barriers to people using the crisis nursery has been its location, Kendal said, on the far Northwest Side. While it is accessible by public transit, some families travel 45 minutes to an hour and a half to get there. Given that, it was a testament to the appreciation parents feel for the staff that many of the parents made the effort to come to Maryville for monthly Parent Café meetings, which included family dinner, a chance for the children to play together under the supervision of staff and a chance for parents to support one another and learn more about parenting. During the pandemic, the Parent Café meetings went online. Now, as pandemic restrictions have eased, the crisis nursery is considering bringing them back in person later this year, Kendal said. Perhaps they’ll still do some online for parents who can’t make the trip, she said. “We’re reinventing some of these things,” she said. “Ultimately, I do think there is a pervasive sense of feeling alone by a lot of parents that maybe they don’t always recognize. Bringing some fresh, positive thinking along with giving hope can really be a game changer. I was very appreciative of the parents really connecting to the virtual Parent Café and really using that to support themselves.” For more about the Maryville Crisis Nursery, visit maryvilleacademy.org/programs/maryville-family-support-services/maryville-crisis-nursery. For immediate help, call the 24-hour helpline at 773-205-3637.