Working woe: Sick kids, few options

Working parents may recognize the scenario: it's the morning of an important meeting, and you're racing to get everyone out the door on time, when suddenly little Johnny comes into the kitchen looking green. "Mooooom," he moans, "I don't feel we...."

Suddenly you're trying to keep your head above a giant lagoon of complications. The only thing bigger than this quagmire is the one you'll be in when you don't show up for work. What to do?

If a new business has its way, that quagmire will be a thing of the past.

"We're looking to come into Charlottesville," says Gail Johnson, founder of Rainbow Station, a Richmond daycare that also offers the Get Well Place for mild or chronically ill children. Johnson says limited real estate and high land prices in Charlottesville have slowed her process, but she plans to keep looking for the right person to open a Charlottesville Rainbow Station franchise, which requires a two-acre lot and a $75,000 initial investment.

Having sick-kid care in town would be "awesome," says aerospace engineer Peggie Menzies, mother of two, whose USAir-pilot husband, Hank Helmen, is often out of town.

"A truly sick kid who just wants mom is one thing," says Menzies. "But when the illness takes you out of work for a week, and you get only two weeks of vacation, you're done. And if you have two kids, forget it!"

The concept of sick care already exists in Charlottesville– but it's not available to everyone. At the Malcolm W. Cole Child Care Center at UVA, open only to children of UVA Medical Center employees, a registered nurse is on staff to care for children with fevers under 104.

Unlike the Cole Center, however, Rainbow Station doesn't limit its sick care to children also enrolled in its regular daycare. Parents can pre-register their children, ages 0 to 14, at the Rainbow Station Get Well Place for $25, and then, when they need it, pay $60 for a day of care.

Children are divided into four areas– one for sniffles, one for stomach ailments, one for highly contagious diseases such as pink-eye or strep throat, and one for children recuperating from an injury or surgery.

The ventilation system for the sick care area is separate from the ventilation for the daycare, and double doors between the two areas provide extra protection against anything airborne. In the "highly contagious" area, a separate entrance minimizes contact between sick and not-quite-as-sick kids.

While a new daycare center would bring competition, some local daycare providers say they'd be happy to have Rainbow Station come to town.

"I think it's a good idea," says Margaret Leckrone, owner of Foundations Child Development Center. When Foundations moved from Route 29N to Berkmar Drive, Leckrone says, she wanted to add a sick room.

"Had we not filled up as quickly as we did," she says, "we were definitely considering doing that."

She says most of the parents she works with have a support network of family and friends who can step in to help, but she acknowledges that a sick child can be very difficult for working parents.

"A lot of people work paycheck to paycheck," she says. "It's hard on the people who don't have family and can't take time off."

For Menzies, who's preparing to send her older child, William, off to kindergarten, a new school year means a whole round of new germs. And she says there's only one thing she can count on.

"The more important the meeting," she jokes, "the sicker your kid gets."