“Is everybody in crisscross applesauce?” asked Shanae Collins, a volunteer and parent of one of the children, before beginning story time.
Those 15 kids, normally students in Head Start programs across Calhoun County, were among 770 area children who awoke today unable to attend their regular classes, after the federal government shutdown interrupted the program’s funding.
Cheaha Regional received about $8 million in federal money for the 2013 fiscal year, which ended Sunday.
Head Start is a federally funded program providing education, health and other services to children from low-income families.
The failure of Congress to reach a budget deal by midnight today partially shut down the federal government, which closed each of the 18 Head Start locations run by the Cheaha Regional Head Start in the program’s six-county area, Program Director Dora Jones said.
The small class inside the Hobson City church was a last-minute salve organized by volunteers and Head Start teachers who are working without pay. The volunteers said they’re doing it to help parents, many of whom have no other place to take their children so they can work and go to school.
The 267 paid workers with Cheaha Regional are now out of work. Jones spent Tuesday tying up loose ends and answering hundreds of calls from parents worried about where to take their children. Jones would leave work Tuesday uncertain of when she’ll return, she said.
“We knew if they didn’t pass that bill we were in the group of possible shut-downs,” Jones said.
She said the staff hoped that Congress would reach a deal at the eleventh hour.
“But they didn’t,” she said.
A letter was sent to parents last week informing them that a shutdown of Head Start was possible, Jones said.
“You can’t even refer them somewhere else because a lot of our parents that are eligible for Head Start aren’t able to go out and pay for private childcare,” Jones said.
“The uncertainty of not knowing how long it’s going to last, it has a very negative impact on all our families and staff,” Jones said. “Right now there’s just so much political stuff in it we can’t even serve the children that have the greatest need of all.”
Jeana Ross, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Children’s Affairs, said six of 32 state Head Start grant recipients statewide are facing financial troubles, but only Cheaha Regional closed Tuesday.
“It depended on their funding cycle,” Ross said.
Agencies affected by the shutdown have funding cycles that began Oct. 1, Ross said.
Including Cheaha Regional, those affected Head Start providers are Florence City Schools, Walker County Board of Education, Dothan City Board of Education, Gulf Regional Child Care Management and Cullman City Schools.
Those agencies provide services for 1,815 children and employ 447 staff members.
Although Cheaha Regional is the first to close, Ross said the other five agencies will have to operate on what funding each has left.
“Some of them are going to keep them open until the 11th,” Ross said.
The remaining five agencies will operate on what funds each has left, she said, adding that many are school systems that will be meeting in the coming weeks to discuss the matter.
According to the Alabama Head Start Association website, 17,424 Alabama children are enrolled in the program, which has 3,419 paid workers.
Grants that fund Head Start programs are given directly from the U.S. Department of Education to local community action agencies, said Malissa Valdes-Hubart, spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Education.
When Taqua Robertson heard Head Start would close, the 17-year employee of the program said she was devastated. Robertson worked at the Heflin Head Start program, operated by Cheaha Regional.
Robertson worked Tuesday alongside Collins with the children in the Hobson City church. She helped organize the all-volunteer class by posting to social networking websites and making phone calls.
“It’s just in my heart. I always try to take care of children and provide a safe place,” Robertson said.
It’s not clear how long the government shutdown will last, and that has parents and Head Start workers uncertain about the future.
Eugene Leonard, pastor of the Life Center Church, said a church member proposed the idea to start the class and he quickly signed on.
“We’re trying to do whatever we can to help the community,” Leonard said. “We had some college students who came in this morning to drop their kids off and said ‘Thank you, because we weren’t going to go to class today without anybody to keep our kids.’ We’re going to do it until the shutdown ends, and it’s totally free.”
Erica Butts, assistant coordinator at Norwood Head Start, is volunteering at the church class. She’s a familiar face for some of the children there, and that’s helped calm them during a confusing and stressful time, she explained.
For the workers who make their living in the program there remains much confusion and stress, she explained.
Ericka Richmond, an Army major stationed at the National Guard Training Center at Fort McClellan, brought a cash donation to the volunteer-staffed class at the Life Center Church on Tuesday morning.
“I’m fortunate because I’m able to provide for my girl to go to school,” Richmond said. Many families are not so fortunate, she said.
Staff Writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @burkhalter_star.
[ let’s break these out as small sidebars]
K-12 public schools not touched by shutdown for now
Malissa Valdes-Hubart, spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Education, said there will be no immediate impact for Alabama’s public schools. Federal funds for major public school programs were appropriated in July and this month by the U.S. Department of Education, she said.
“I’m just kind of holding my breath to see how long it’s going to last,” Anniston City Schools Superintendent Joan Frazier said.
Frazier said that the government shutdown has the potential to affect federal cash flow in the future. That federal money provides for about 24 percent of the district’s approximately $20 million budget, Frazier said.
Students’ financial aid secure
Stephanie Miller, assistant director of financial aid at JSU, said students will see no reduction or interruption in their financial aid because of the government shutdown.
Federally funded Pell grants were signed into law last year and cannot be changed, regardless of a government shutdown, Miller explained.
Supplemental grants and work study programs could be cut if lawmakers decide to do so when crafting a new federal budget, Miller explained, but that would have nothing to do with the government shutdown.
There will be changes at JSU’s Little River Canyon Center, however. The center operates in the Little River Canyon National Preserve in partnership with the National Park Service, which has closed parks nationwide because of the shutdown. The center’s gift shop, restrooms and video presentations will remain open, but the park surrounding it will close, according to a press release from JSU.
Kay Smith-Foster, director of public relations at Gadsden State Community College, said that administrators there have received no news as to how the shutdown could affect the school.
“If it lingers on for a while I’m sure notifications will have to come out,” Foster said, adding that for now, “We’re all in the dark.”
Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.