Friday, May 27, 2005

Valley tots celebrate Head Start

Funding slips as costs increase

Express Staff Writer

Head Start families celebrated a successful year of preschool programs at the Community Campus in Hailey on Wednesday. Head Start Director Desna Foster distributed awards to volunteers and program supporters at the community appreciation event, including recognition of Kary Ragains as the Parent of the Year.

The children sang in English and Spanish. Balloons were distributed as families enjoyed a buffet. An inflatable dragon was puffed up in the gymnasium, which Head Start kids enjoy typically on rainy days.

"Our program depends on the parents, the community and the volunteers," said Foster, whose own son went to Head Start. "We want to thank you."

This was the first year for the program to be housed at the Community Campus. Foster explained how helpful it was having the use of the old high-school facilities and help from both the school and recreation districts.

Dressed up and decorated with smiles, the children posed for pictures as they sang "I like to eat, I like to eat, apples and bananas."

"It's very good for my child," said Julissa Garcia of Hailey, whose husband is a cook at the Ketchum Kantina. The couple has lived in the Wood River Valley with their daughter Evelyn for two years.

This year the program was year round, open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. But, budget cuts will reduce the hours and days Head Start is in session next year, although the number of children to be served could jump from 28 this year to 38 beginning in August.

"We are a federally funded program for preschool children from income-eligible families, who without our services, would not be able to attend preschool," Foster said. "We receive 80 percent of our funding through the federal government and 20 percent through in-kind donations from the community.

"Unfortunately, we are experiencing cuts in our budget that prevent us from maintaining our current program. This year, health care costs for South Central Head Start rose 9 percent and the budget only granted a 1 percent cost-of-living increase. This created a $131,000 discrepancy for the 11 Head Start programs in South Central Idaho."

Head Start will operate on a limited schedule next year, open Tuesday through Friday only during the school year. Hours will also be limited. Enrollment is now open, Foster said.

"Head Start is a community of children, families, staff, volunteers, and resource people working together to develop an environment that enhances learning and growing, not only for our children, but for our families as well," Foster said. "We currently serve 28 families with preschool, medical, dental, vision, hearing, and mental-health services."

Marti Harliss with the Senior Connection was recognized for her help this year, which included a senior luncheon during the winter holidays with the kids, who received books and shared a steak dinner at the senior center. The seniors and children partnered up and read the books they received.

"I think it's wonderful," said Harliss, whose great-granddaughter Christina Powers participates in the program. "It helps to prepare children for kindergarten."

"The teachers are so nourishing. She's changed 100 percent," said Christina's grandfather, who also joined the event.

"The most shocking thing is that even for people who volunteer briefly and come by a month or two later, the kids remember who you are and give you a hug," Christina's mother, Susan Powers, said.

Lizbeth Ruiz was also recognized for her help with the program, even though her daughter Diana is already a graduate and attending kindergarten. She volunteers with the policy committee when they meet in Twin Falls.

"I try to give something back because they helped so much when my child was in the program," Ruiz said.

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