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Bellevue Hospital's Child Care Center Struggling to Survive After Sandy

KIPS BAY — While employees at Bellevue Hospital began returning to the Hurricane Sandy-crippled medical center this month, a decades-old child care facility for staff is struggling to survive.

When Hurricane Sandy hit Bellevue, the longstanding child care program run out of its  basement was devastated. Almost all of its supplies were destroyed and it was forced to relocate to an East 23rd Street co-op building. Half its staff had to be cut.

Nearly four months later, it's struggling to pay rent at its temporary space, hasn't been able to replace all of its supplies and equipment, and now organizers fear the program may have to close for good.

It's been relying on donated or found equipment and doesn't have a sprinkler system required for the care of infants.

As a result, Bellevue-Educare Child Care Center, which has operated at the hospital for the past four decades but is no longer affiliated with it, is down nearly half the number of children it once served, from 41 children to 23.

“It’s affected me emotionally, mentally and physically. I work longer hours and it’s been tough. But I’m trying to stay cool about it and stay healthy," said Edna Maldonado, 64, a teacher who has been working 10-hour days since the program had to cut staff.

"You do it for the kids.”

Bellevue created the child care program in 1971, but the center became a separate entity a few years later. It's owned by Bellevue-Educare Inc., a nonprofit overseen by a board of directors, said the program's director, Sarah Maldonado, who is not related to Edna Maldonado.

The majority of the parents who use the program are Bellevue staffers, a teacher in the program said. The day care didn't pay rent to Bellevue for its space in the basement, and, in exchange, children of Bellevue staff got a discounted tuition.

But, according to staff members at the preschool, the hospital hasn't done anything to help its recovery, and the program has been relying on grants and donations to pay the $3,000 monthly rent at its temporary space at East Midtown Plaza, Sarah Maldonado said.

Bellevue did not respond to calls for comment.

“We lost highly qualified teachers and we lost our assistants,” said Sarah Maldonado. “We lost them for good, and they had to file for unemployment.”

After searching for a temporary space for two months, the center found a new home in a community room at East Midtown Plaza and opened on New Year’s Day.

"What's important is that it's safe and clean, and it is," said June Bennett, 29, a parent of two children attending the preschool and a former staff member at Bellevue.

"Wherever they moved, I would've followed them because I trust the staff and they're great with children."

Once it had secured a space, the center still had to find furniture and supplies, including bedding, tables, chairs, shelves and art supplies, which were all destroyed in the flood.

The program won’t be able to move back into Bellevue until at least July 1, Sarah Maldonado said.

“I started working here when the program opened [in 1971], and now I’m the only furniture left,” Edna Maldonado said.

Parents donated some supplies, including toys and inflatable beds, but much of the furniture in the new place was picked off the street and cleaned to reuse, Sarah Maldonado said.

For instance, the shelf where the arts-and-craft supplies are stored was once a closet with doors, but the staff washed it down and converted it, she said.

To top off its troubles, the few staff members that are left in the program have to work more hours for less pay to make up for the lost help, she said.

The preschool program runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., every weekday.

And while the staff has shrunk, so has enrollment, Sarah Maldonado added.

One reason for the decrease is that the new space doesn’t have a sprinkler system, and health codes require one for day cares serving babies, Sarah Maldonado said.

"[The move] is a major inconvenience for Bellevue staff with babies," said Bennett. "Before, they were able to drop their kids off and go upstairs to work and now they can't."

Earlier this year, the center's board was able to secure a $3,000 donation from the Father’s and Mother’s Day Foundation, using it to pay a month’s rent at the new location, said Sarah Maldonado.

“We’ve had a lot of cooperation from the board of directors,” she said.

As for the rest of the funds needed to replace lost equipment and supplies, the center will be applying for grants and holding fundraisers, she said.

On April 24, the center will be holding a fundraising dinner at Dolcino’s, located at 517 Second Ave. Admission is $100. For more information, call  (212) 206–7818.