Donation re-opens Head Start program through October
by Eddie Burkhalter
eburkhalter@annistonstar.com
Oct 08, 2013 | 4895 views |  0 comments | 65 65 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Erica Butts volunteers with children at Life Center Church in Hobson City on Tuesday. Butts is the assistant center coordinator at Norwood Head Start, closed with other local programs because of the federal government shutdown. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
Erica Butts volunteers with children at Life Center Church in Hobson City on Tuesday. Butts is the assistant center coordinator at Norwood Head Start, closed with other local programs because of the federal government shutdown. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
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Last week, 770 children were locked out of local Head Start classrooms, but a $10 million donation will reopen the classes Wednesday and keep them open through October.

Those children, and the 267 workers at Cheaha Regional Head Start who teach and feed them, will return to class this week. The government shutdown pulled federal funding for the program last week.

Advocates for Head Start programs worry, however, that the money is a short-term fix, and unless the government reopens by November classes will once again be in financial trouble.

The donation, made by John Arnold, a former hedge fund manager from Houston, and his wife, Laura Arnold, is expected to reopen seven shuttered Head Start programs in six states in the coming days. In addition to Cheaha Regional, programs in Georgia, Connecticut, Florida, South Carolina and Missouri closed last week because of the shutdown.

The money will have to be paid back, without interest, to the Arnolds once the government reopens, if the programs are funded enough to operate for a full year, according to a press release by the National Head Start Association.

The association will administer the money directly to the affected programs, said spokeswoman Sally Aman.

Cheaha Regional serves children in 18 locations across a six-county area in north Alabama. Head Start programs provide meals, educational, health and other services to low-income children.

Aman said by phone Tuesday that Cheaha Regional was approved for funding through the association, but declined to say how much of the $10 million in emergency money the program will receive. Each agency had to meet certain financial requirements to receive the funds, and each will get just enough to remain open this month, she said. Cheaha Regional received about $8 million in federal money for the 2013 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30.

The failure of Congress to reach a budget deal by midnight last Monday partially shut down the federal government. Head Start programs run on federal funding, and the programs hit hardest by the shutdown had funding cycles like Cheaha Regional’s that began Oct. 1.

More than 7,000 children nationwide lost access to Head Start last week, according to the association.

A staff of volunteers made up of Head Start teachers, parents and church members opened a program inside the Life Center Church in Hobson City last week to give local Head Start kids a place to go.

The volunteer program saved many parents who had no place to take their children so they could go to work and school, said the church’s pastor Eugene Leonard.

Doris Jones, Cheaha Regional’s program director, said Tuesday she was thrilled at being able to reopen, but said she was still awaiting confirmation from the bank on Tuesday that the money is there.

Several other Alabama Head Start agencies with funding cycles that began Oct. 1 were also affected by the shutdown, but remained open last week by operating on what money each had left from last fiscal year. Those affected programs are Florence City Schools, the Walker County Board of Education, Gulf Regional Child Care Management and Cullman City Schools.

Attempts to reach Jeana Ross, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Children’s Affairs, for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful. Children’s Affairs administers federal money to local Head Start programs.

“Our representatives' inability to resolve their differences has caused severe disruptions in the lives of many low-income Americans” the Arnolds were quoted as saying in a statement released Monday. “We believe that it is especially unfair that young children from underprivileged communities and working families pay the price for the legislature's collective failures.”

The statement said that private donations cannot replace government funding in the long term. Advocates for the pre-k program agreed with that point.

“The entire Head Start community and the at-risk children we serve are tremendously grateful to the Arnolds for their compassion and generosity,” wrote Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association, in a press release issued Monday. “The bottom line, however, is that angel investors like the Arnolds cannot possibly offer a sustainable solution to the funding crisis threatening thousands of our poorest children.”

Vinci’s statement urged lawmakers to find a solution that would help serve Head Start’s 1 million students nationwide.

If the government fails to reopen by Nov. 1, Head Start programs serving more than 86,000 children in 41 states and one U.S. territory stand to lose access to federal money, said Aman, the association spokeswoman.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.

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