AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy --
The 4-year-old boy runs up and tugs on the giant's pant leg. "Look at all my dinosaurs!" he pleads. The young adventurer is holding up pieces of foam cutouts that vaguely resemble a tyrannosaurus rex. Then, he's off again - wandering through the room that allows his imagination to run wild.
While the boy explores and creates his next exciting adventure, his mother is doing the grocery shopping, paying bills and studying for her next college exam. "Where does she find the time?" one frustrated mother may ask. The answer is simple: the Aviano Co-op Care program.
Comparable to a convenience store's "Take a penny, leave a penny" tray, the program asks parents to volunteer and accrue hours providing free childcare in a safe environment to earn credit toward childcare services for themselves.
"Most volunteers here are in school or they go to the gym or do whatever they need to do," said Kelly Saunders, 31st Force Support Squadron Co-op Care coordinator. "It's a good three hours to run errands without having to worry about your kids throwing a tantrum at the commissary."
The Status of Forces Agreement in place does not allow parents to work on the European economy, which includes opening in-home daycares -- a common practice at air bases that alleviates the pressure placed on child development centers. To mitigate that added burden, U.S. Air Forces in Europe implemented the one-of-a-kind program 10 years ago.
"Let's say you have one child and you volunteer once during the week, you will get three additional drop-off days for your child without having to volunteer again," Saunders explains. "If you have two or more children, you will come in for your volunteer day and receive two days instead of three."
For Paige Borgeson, one of the newest additions to the co-op team, the program permits the mother of two to study and do coursework for a master's degree in mathematics without worrying about whether her children are safe.
"I'm going to use the time away from my kids to begin my next semester," said Borgeson. "I have a 16 month old and a 3 year old and having the co-op allows for that valuable time to take my class seriously."
Not only has the program proven to be accommodating for stay-at-home parents, but the children take away from it as well, said Saunders.
"[The program] helps your child, developmentally, to be around kids their age," said Saunders. "It allows them to grow and learn from others in a different environment. There is some structure here and they are exposed to a variety of different activities and children they might not meet otherwise."
For those parents worried about leaving their children with strangers, Saunders assures the most stringent policies are enforced in regards to health and safety.
Any volunteers must undergo a full background check, provide references, a record of immunizations and a current physical. Saunders also personally trains volunteers on mandatory training to include CPR, first aid, fire safety, child abuse prevention and positive guidance classes.
"We're not the CDC or the [Aviano Youth Programs], but we're held to the same Air Force standards that they are in regard to safety," said Saunders.
For more information or to find out how to volunteer, visit http://31fss.com/co-op.shtml