Katie Thurson

Clemson PRTM master’s student Katie Thurson is the Coordinator of the Emergency Relief Childcare program at the Powdersville YMCA.
Image Credit: David Hearn

It’s a stressful time to be providing an essential service in the front lines, whether it’s in the medical field, as a first responder or working at a grocery store.

With schools and other services being closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus, many parents are scrambling to find somewhere safe for their children to go while they’re on the job. One Clemson University graduate student is helping many families balance child care and work when many daycares are closed.

Katie Thurson, a master’s student in Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department, is working with Clemson alumna Alicia Bentley, the Afterschool Care Director for the YMCA of Easley, Pickens & Powdersville, as part of the Powdersville YMCA team that provides the Emergency Relief Childcare program for a limited number of children in their care. Thurson helps manage a daily team of between five and seven staff members and up to 36 children using increased health and safety protocols.

The protocols they follow are based on CDC and DHEC guidelines that include temperature checks multiple times throughout the day for anyone coming into the building, cleaning and disinfecting procedures, and keeping group sizes small and kids as far apart as possible.

Thurson said that this poses a programming challenge for camp-based activities, which are usually very hands-on and messy.

“Our camp activities are usually outside and tech-free without a school focus,” Thurson said. “We’ve had to think and strategize about how to keep the kids entertained while also keeping them safe.”

The program uses technology and virtual experiences to replicate activities that would normally occur in-person and outside, such as taking a virtual field trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. After students observed otters, penguins, and jellyfish on live cams, they designed their own postcards about their experiences.

Gwynn Powell, associate professor in Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department, has provided planning support for Thurson throughout the experience. Thurson has served as Powell’s teaching assistant for Clemson’s Foundations of Camp Counseling class, which developed activity lesson plans for Camp Clemson summer programs earlier in the semester.

“With the current health crisis, it won’t be possible for our class to work at Camp Clemson, so I asked Dr. Powell about using their lessons plans with the kids I’m currently working with at the YMCA,” Thurson said. “The students created these plans with such creativity and enthusiasm, and I want to honor the work they did, even if they aren’t able to see it in person.”

The class now has the new challenge of creating additional lesson plans that meet the stringent criteria that Thurson is following for the program’s child care activities.

Powell is pleased that Katie was able to use the work their class had developed earlier in the semester and that students are continuing to apply lessons learned in class in a real-world setting through their teaching assistant.

“As a faculty member, it is nice that we can still keep a service learning component to our classroom learning even though we cannot deliver it in person,” Powell said. “I think it also adds to the student motivation for assignments because they know they have a real-life, immediate application.”

Thurson said the experience so far has taught her that the key to being successful both in her master’s program and in the camp world is flexibility. She also sees how important it is to set the tone and dynamic of a situation rather than reflecting the panic and stress that exists all around them her, her fellow workers and the children at camp.

Thurson is also proud to be part of a team of counselors and directors that understand the impact of their work, while also making the best out of a tough situation.

“We are doing our best to keep the camp magic alive, and the counselors and directors have done an absolutely fantastic job making the best out of a tough situation,” Thurson said. “Even though we are experiencing an unprecedented crisis, our program exists as a safe bubble for providing some sense of normalcy for the children in our programs, and it has done the same for me.”