Professional performer Kristina Hanford traveled the world as Elsa in the Disney Cruise Lines "Frozen." When the singer, actor, and dancer wasn't performing off-Broadway or at regional theaters, she nannied for a local family.
When New York City became the United States' epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, it curtailed all of Hanford's work. Hanford — like most performers — relies on jobs in the service industry like nannying, babysitting, and waitressing. With mandated shutdowns and social distancing mandates, all of that income evaporated.
For Hanford it was about more than the money. She missed the family she worked for and stayed connected through FaceTime. A two-hour virtual visit sparked an idea for Hanford's partner, entrepreneur Kyle Reilly.
"Kristina was having so much fun Facetiming with the young boy she used to nanny for. And she was helping the parents through the crisis. I said to her, 'Why not start a virtual babysitters club?'" Reilly said. "She thought it was a great idea, and we knew there was no one better suited to handle the job than performers."
The couple began screening performers and connecting them with families in early March 2020. On March 31, the Virtual Babysitters Club LLC was officially formed, and the website launched on April 7. The virtual service offers creative entertainment options for families balancing working from home and keeping their children engaged.
One-on-one sessions are $30 an hour. Private group sessions are $90 for at least five participants. Public group sessions are $18.00 per child, and offer kids a chance to make new friends. Sessions are led by talented performers with diverse backgrounds from musical theater to television show hosts, singers, puppeteers, and more. All performers go through a rigorous background check before approval.
Activities range from dance activities to music where kids participate in games, activities, and sing-a-longs. Art sessions captivate kids' attention through drawing and creating and games test their knowledge in interactive fun ways. Breakout Adventures immerse participants in their own adventure and work with friends to solve puzzles and strategy games, save the world and become a master spy.
After a session is booked, an automatic/random and unique zoom link is created specific to that session. It is sent via email to the parent(s)' email address along with any instructions for needed supplies. The notice includes the ability to add the appointment information into most calendars.
All participants are held in a waiting room until the host performer makes sure nobody has joined who is not supposed to be there. Once invited into the session, parents are welcome to meet the performer and ask questions.
"We think it's a healthy alternative to video games that kids are maybe playing during this time," Hanford said.
While the VBC is giving parents a hand, it is offering income and stability to the performers who participate. Two such performers are Andrea Dotto and her fiancé Brendan Malafronte, who lead Storytime Pals with the Dusty & Dott Show.
Dusty is a puppet Malafronte created five years ago on the rooftop of the couple's Harlem apartment; before he toured with "Annie,"he thought it would be fun to create an understudy for the musical's lead dog, Sandy. Malafronte, also a master puppet instructor at Pace University, brought the puppet to his future in-laws' home in upstate New York when the couple left the city to quarantine there. They launched the Dusty & Dott YouTube channel and brought the show to the Virtual Babysitters Club. From silly characters to arts and crafts, Dusty & Dott make stories come to life.
"We're craving stability and structure — everybody is, especially artists, because so much has been taken away from our norm," Dotto said. "To be able to show up to work, even though it is virtually, and connecting with kids, and even having time to connect with different performers and the parents of the family, makes you feel like you're doing your purpose by telling stories."
"The VBC is giving us what is missing from theater right now, that live feedback," Malafronte said. "Transitioning from theater to film is so hard. It's much more trying to find the right light, right shot, right sound. Andrea edits constantly, and you never get that moment of the audience telling us that it worked. By going on VBC we get that reaction from the kids."
Working with creative performers from diverse backgrounds gives the Virtual Babysitters Club a competitive edge — the ability to innovate and develop new programs. There are several in the works including Erin's Animal Adventure, an environmental education program featuring exotic animals that will be for people of all ages, with an emphasis on learning through enjoyment.
Reilly and Hanford are also in the process of developing programming for seniors, which will launch this summer. Prior to COVID-19, Hanford worked with a family to provide care for an individual with dementia, and sees that as a population who could benefit from continued interaction. Senior activities are likely to include musical hours where participants can request favorite songs or hear classical musicals they grew up with and love.
"Developing a senior program was the next logical step," Hanford said. "In the US alone there are over 40 million unpaid caretakers providing like 35 billion hours of unpaid care. We want to help those families by providing a great service for their senior loved ones."
Hanford and Reilly also knew kids would be disappointed at missing birthday parties and summer camps. To help parents make up for what kids were missing out on, the VBC also offers online birthday parties, summer camps and magic shows. The activities have captured the attention of businesses who have paid for sessions on behalf of their employees.
"Major corporations are coming to us — businesses, schools and hospitals — and they are using VBC for their working from home employees, because they want to help out, do something good for their employees, and increase their productivity," Reilly said.
If you're interested, you can book a session on the Virtual Babysitters Club website.