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An underground parking lot at Aviano Air Base that's been closed to car traffic because of terrorism concerns is becoming a covered play area for kids. Dozens of volunteers at the base spent time painting colorful scenes and a track for tricycles.
An underground parking lot at Aviano Air Base that's been closed to car traffic because of terrorism concerns is becoming a covered play area for kids. Dozens of volunteers at the base spent time painting colorful scenes and a track for tricycles. (Kent Harris / S&S)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — Parents with young children will soon get a break — or two — at Aviano.

Faced with a shortage of available child care, a group of local parents is forming a cooperative. Those who join will be able to drop off their children for a few hours if they, in turn, volunteer to put in time themselves.

Suzann Chambers, one of the parents behind the push, said the project is designed to address a niche that the Child Development Center often has trouble meeting: short-term child care.

So kids will have a place to play with one another — or take a nap — while their parents run errands.

“The co-op isn’t just for the children,” Chambers says. “It’s for the adults, too.”

Most spouses of servicemembers assigned to Aviano live in dozens of small communities around the base. Those with small children and only one car in the family often stay home all day, with only their kids to talk to.

“None of my neighbors speak English,” Chambers says. “They are so nice. But I don’t understand anything they say.”

So the cooperative — initially located in a large, prefabricated building behind the chapel and school on Area 1 — can also provide a place for adults to talk while watching the children.

“They’re going to form relationships with other people,” Chambers says.

And some of those people won’t actually be assigned to the Air Force.

Stacy Bloyd’s husband, Sgt. John Bloyd, is attached to the small Army contingent on base. He’s been deployed to Iraq with other members of Company B, 5th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment for about a year.

The couple and their children — the youngest born in Italy — have been at the base since 2001. But Stacy never attended a base orientation session because she couldn’t find child care.

She says she has participated in similar cooperatives in the States, but had trouble making headway with the concept at Aviano. That’s until recently when Chambers — whose husband, Air Force Col. Scott Chambers, heads the 31st Mission Support Group — and others got involved. The project has gained momentum through Combat Cheer, a U.S. Air Forces in Europe program that encourages volunteerism.

“I can’t tell you how much stuff we’ve gone through to get to this point,” says Bloyd, who has agreed to be the head volunteer at the co-op. “There are at least 50 people working hard for this project to go through.”

Much of it has had to do with the strict regulations the Air Force maintains over child care. The base had to get a waiver to try the concept. Base officials stress that the co-op will not offer licensed child care. Rather, parents will be supervising their own children and others for only short periods of time.

Parents who volunteer can take classes on topics such as first aid and positive reinforcement to make them better supervisors. They’ll earn points for attending classes and putting in time at the co-op. The more points a parent generates, the more time his or her children can stay at the co-op.

Chambers, an interior decorator by trade, said the concept makes sense for all involved. She said that it just took some pushing in the right places.

“ ‘No’ is really not an option in my house,” she says with a smile.

Her decorating talents are in evidence at the co-op. Several rooms sport brightly colored walls, thanks to a large group of volunteers and their paint brushes. That’s also the case a few blocks away at a playground that will soon make its official debut.

An underground parking lot under one of the dormitories on Area 2 hasn’t seen much use of late. Fearing car bombs, the base closed the facility shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But while others saw gray concrete with numbered parking spaces, Chambers saw a covered playground. Dozens of volunteers, gallons of paint and donations by a variety of groups around base later, it’s easier to share her vision.

A painted race track now spans part of the garage floor for intrepid tricyclists to navigate. Colorful pictures line the walls. Eventually, bikes and toys will be kept there. She says her hope is that parents will be able to take their kids there to let them expend some energy.

Unlike the co-op, there are no plans to staff the underground playground.

“You can’t just drop off your kids,” Chambers says. “It will need supervising, just like a playground.”

Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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