Orlena McQueen has been in the Dorchester area for about forty years; its kind people, vibrant businesses, and churches occupy a special place in her heart. But it was through her role as a childcare provider that she became deeply invested in her community.
Coming into the childcare industry after having her daughter, Orlena worked in different settings as both a teacher and eventually a director, learning both sides of the business. She opened a summer camp for kids in the neighborhood and spent her entire days going from one museum to another, exploring Boston with the children she looked after. McQueen later returned to working in a child care center since she loved being with people and interacting with kids and their families. As she narrates these days, her lips part for a spirited grin. “I loved seeing babies grow and reach their milestones — talking, walking, turning over — and I could identify when a child needed a little something extra.” Given her training in special needs, Orlena can promote early interventions and help kids’ necessities be met. Her eyes also shine when she describes the books, songs, games, and activities she was able to invent as a provider — “the creativity was my favorite part.”
McQueen’s voice becomes filled with sorrow, however, when she recounts how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected young people in the community. “This virus has done some work to our young people”, McQueen laments, telling the story of her thirteen-year-old granddaughter, who has had to look after her younger siblings after her mother went back to work. The young girl “is not just stressed or worried, she is traumatized” about getting the virus. Throughout the pandemic, many families have turned to older siblings, grandmas, and other family members to play caregiving roles, often without much preparation. This form of child care was prevalent before the pandemic too, and is often an undervalued part of our child care system.
Orlena also believes that the pandemic has also exacerbated the challenges faced by providers who serve communities of color. “I would like to see that […] this time around they’re gonna give grants to these early childhood centers, especially in our urban communities, because I really feel that everybody else gets benefits except for us.” McQueen recounts that she is still in touch with many childcare providers in her community who applied for pandemic assistance and were rejected. As centers reopen, she insists that official plans must take into account kids’ tendencies to socialize and move around in ways that violate the social distancing guidelines imposed. Orlena believes we must be ready to address the trauma created by COVID-19 and help children deal with these fears.