Kayla Corbitt took the stage at the Military Influencer Conference in November 2023 for the Second Service Foundation pitch competition. With her baby on her hip, the military spouse and forensic psychology researcher had the room enthralled with the correlation of childcare to force readiness. It was no surprise she won. But her work in this space is just getting started.
“I had zero military exposure as a child growing up in West Virginia. What I knew I gleaned from television commercials I saw,” Corbitt laughed.
Though she earned her undergraduate degree in her home state, graduate school took her to Northern Virginia. Finishing her degree in forensic psychology, Corbitt met her future spouse.
“I was studying advocacy paths and buried in things like data research. Focusing on military families wasn’t even on my radar,” she explained.
Corbitt’s soon-to-be spouse was a soldier stationed at Walter Reed Medical Center and, at the time, working civilian-like hours.
“I always joke that I got tricked into this life and it was a trap,” she admitted with a smile. “I was a nanny for a military family while finishing up school and their life seemed pretty normal. I was gaslit from the start and so, I was like, this is fine. Everything here is normal. Why does everyone get so up in arms about this? Of course, this was before we had children.”
But then, Corbitt got a glimpse of the "real side"of military life. Their wedding was moved up because of a deployment that was canceled at the last minute. Their orders to Germany were changed to Italy and reality began to set in for the new military spouse. Despite her optimism, Corbitt learned what the community has been saying for years: Italy is where military spouse careers go to die.
“When I was finally able to enter the workforce, I was making $12 an hour with my master’s degree,” she admitted. “I quickly realized that this was one of the better jobs out there, and had I had a child at that point, even that would have been impossible. With it being so dismal, we decided we might as well start our family now and I’d spend our time there using my knowledge to advocate for other families.”
This led to her building relationships with the Child Development Center and her husband's command to create dialog around the issues of childcare. When they received orders back to the U.S., Corbitt had a job lined up. With all of her experience in the childcare advocacy field, she “knew” what to do. They had a center lined up after months of work and a detailed spreadsheet she created.
“When I started working, I knew it would take a couple of months of paying for childcare before we’d receive the subsidy reimbursement assistance. With that, we paid up front and I made sure we had at least $8,000 to cover it all,” she added.
The Washington D.C. area has one of the highest costs of living and childcare was no exception.
“I found out that the center that I chose, even though it was listed as approved for accepting the assistance, was not actually approved for accepting that assistance, or requesting an exception to policy," she said. Corbitt filed for reimbursement and it was declined. "So I had no choice at that point. I had to quit my job, I couldn't afford to start over at a new center. It is generally a month or so in deposits that you have to pay in at least that time in that area, and then you have to be ready to pay your tuition for a couple of months, and we couldn’t do that.”
Devastated and furious, Corbitt searched for accountability but was essentially told she should have vetted the center more carefully, despite the search portal she was told to use being inaccurate.
“I just kept thinking if this happened to me when I was supposedly an expert on this topic, I knew it was happening to other families. I call it resource gaslighting now,” Corbitt said.
The next year was a struggle for the family and they eventually had to take out an Army Emergency Relief loan to pay for childcare when she found another job. She shared that they felt shamed and mortified during the entire experience. The next few years were spent working with the Department of Defense on this issue and pursuing change.
“I was told over and over that they were doing the best that they could. It’s okay to acknowledge that while also countering by saying it isn’t good enough,” Corbitt said.
With her advocacy efforts stalled, she decided to stand in the gap with an effective resource. Operation Childcare and Operation Childcare Project (the nonprofit) were born.
“I created the first search portal for military families that included childcare options for on and off-base, as well as subsidy eligibility, and we use a stoplight system,” she shared.
That system simplifies the process of finding childcare providers by allowing the military family to quickly assess the options after answering a few simple demographic questions. If it's red, you aren’t likely to access it within the next few months, yellow means you might and green means it’s available to you. This takes the guesswork out of an already stressed process, Corbitt added.
The success behind the system has been proven and Corbitt is taking the data even further.
“I will often sit in front of a legislator or person of power and share that one in four military families is considered food insecure. When we unpack that story we see that the top five causes of financial stress include access to quality childcare,” she said.
Her work hasn’t come without pushback, either.
“I’ve heard a lot that I’m overstepping my bounds and I need to be careful. I’m not replacing anything; I created something that didn’t exist before,” she explained. “It was filling a gap and I wanted to do it alongside leadership. Talking about military spouse unemployment as a hot topic is great and I’m glad we are addressing this very real need. But if we aren’t addressing the infrastructure needed to support that employment, we aren’t moving the needle.”
To learn more about the Operation Childcare Project, click here.
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