By John Burton
FORT HANCOCK – It’s been a tough year for the Sandy Hook Child Care Center.
“It’s been a series of unfortunate events,” the center’s executive director, Jessica Long, said about the last 12 months for the not-for-profit, state-licensed day care center, located at historic Fort Hancock.
After the roughly 7-mile national recreation area was devastated in October 2012 by Super Storm Sandy, the park was closed. That resulted in the child care center’s forced closure for seven months, a time when it wasn’t earning tuition and parents were forced to seek alternatives. When the center reopened last spring, some of its students did not return.
The center is continuing to serve its children and working to rebound from recent setbacks, Long stressed.
“Over the last year from November to May, there were a lot of unknowns,” Long said.
One of those unknowns was whether the facility would be able to continue. “Thankfully, a lot of people helped out,” including parents and those who attended a September fundraiser, which has helped the facility continue operation.
Another factor has been the facility’s entrance into a 10-year lease agreement that requires it to pay $800 a month to the National Park Service. Formerly, the child care center paid an annual special-use permit fee and assumed responsibility for the building’s upkeep, according to Long.
In years past, the center didn’t pay for the use of the more than 100-year-old building and when it began it even received some funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has a facility at the fort and whose employees used the center for their children, said Amanda Plantamura, a NOAA employee who is the center’s volunteer treasurer. Her 18-month-old and 3-year-old daughters go to the center.
The lease agreement and other issues for the center have been a “double-whammy,” Plantamura said. “We’re trying to figure out ways to pay for that.”
Daphne Yun, a National Park Service (NPS) spokesperson, said in an email, the park service is trying to codify how all of its parks work with facility occupants. The child care facility wasn’t in a formal lease agreement at the site and NPS looked to standardize its agreement.
“They currently pay fair market value as do all of our lease holders,” Yun said.
Sandy Hook Day Care Center was established 32 years ago as a way to accommodate parents who worked at the park, including employees of NOAA, the Coast Guard, NPS and the other not-for-profit organizations that leased space there. About two years later the facility was opened up to other families and has traditionally drawn children from Highlands, Sea Bright and Middletown.
The center charges $50 a day for a children age 2½ or younger, and $45 a day for the older children. The facility can accommodate up to 15 children a day, according to Long.
That relatively small size is both an attraction and something of a liability for the small operation.
“I’m very picky about who I leave my kids with and I like that it’s small,” Plantamura said.
The small size also translates into a child-to-teacher ratio that parents are not apt to find in larger facilities and something families see as a plus, Long said.
The downside, she said, is that “it’s always a struggle for us because we’re small.”
The location offers children a unique benefit because of its location in a scenic national recreation area with neighbors like NOAA, New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium and the other environmental organizations that can provide educational and recreational opportunities. The children regularly go on nature walks. “What we have here is unparalleled,” Long said.
The operators are hoping to increase enrollment.
”People forget about us,” Long said. “They don’t know we’re out here.”