KJ: Grant tours Augusta Head Start as part of effort to end childhood hunger

Some of the children in the Sand Hill program have been homeless and all are given two healthy meals a day.



AUGUSTA — Touring the Webster Center Head Start site, Ward 2 City Councilor Darek Grant marveled at the array of services offered to the 3-to-5-year-old youngsters there four days a week, but he expressed dismay that so many children are in need of those services.

Grant, who attended a Head Start program while growing up in Augusta, is leading the efforts of a working group formed earlier this year to fight childhood hunger and homelessness.

Augusta City Councilor Darek Grant tours a class at the Webster Head Start school in Augusta on Tuesday as part of his effort to combat childhood hunger and homelessness.

Augusta City Councilor Darek Grant tours a class at the Webster Head Start school in Augusta on Tuesday as part of his effort to combat childhood hunger and homelessness. Staff photo by Andy Molloy
To know how best to address those troubling issues, Grant first wants to assess what community efforts are already in place to help prevent and combat the problems.

On Tuesday he toured Southern Kennebec Child Development Corporation’s Webster Center Head Start, a federally funded program aimed at providing children from low-income families early childhood education, nutrition, health and social services. The center is in Augusta’s Sand Hill neighborhood on Franklin Street in the former Webster School building, which was built in 1890.

The Webster Center Head Start serves children from 64 families, according to Susan Daniels, disabilities and mental health manager for Southern Kennebec Child Development Corporation.

Of those 64 families, 12 either are homeless or have been homeless at some point this school year, she said.

“The thought that 12 kiddos or more in there are homeless is sad, heartbreaking,” Grant said after touring the facility, which is owned by the city and leased for a token amount to the Head Start program. “I don’t know the answer.”

A wide array of services by multiple government agencies are offered at the Webster Center. They include mental health counseling, speech and physical therapy, social services and rides for children whose parents qualify for that assistance and are unable to provide transportation. Health care offerings include access to a nurse, a dental clinic and a lead screening clinic and help finding health care providers.

Students there come for a minimum of four hours a day, four days a week. Each day they all go outside for 40 minutes of physical play on the fenced-in playground, weather permitting.

“It gets them outside and moving, gets them active,” Daniels said. “In some of our families, kids don’t go outside much. You’re living on Northern Avenue, you’re living on Washington Street, you don’t go out, because it’s not safe. Mill Park has been a savior for a lot of our families. It’s a great place for them to go and walk around, play, have a picnic.”

When it’s too cold out or the playground is too icy, children use the basement, remodeled around 14 years ago, to get some physical activity.

All students also get full nutritious breakfasts and lunches.

On Tuesday pancakes — the tempting smell of them wafting through the old brick building — topped with apple sauce were served with freshly cut mango for breakfast in individual classrooms.

“We’re mandated to provide two-thirds of their daily nutritional requirements,” Daniels said of the meals. “We’re lucky in that the food is very good. We have a great chef.”

Shelves full of donated clothing and books are placed throughout the building outside classrooms where students and families can pick up those items at no charge.

Parents also are involved, meeting with teachers at Head Start and getting help and advice from staff there.

“It’s remarkable to think, what would these kids be doing without this program?” Grant said.

Daniels said some of them would be “on the street. Or at the soup kitchen.”

Grant will update fellow city councilors on Thursday on the working group and efforts to fight childhood hunger and homelessness in Augusta. Grant said the update will be based largely on his tour of the Head Start program and information he received from school officials about the efforts being made within local schools to help students who could be hungry, homeless, or both.

The council meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. in council chambers at Augusta City Center.

Grant said he’s learned from school staff members that efforts are underway at each of the city’s schools that could help in the fight against childhood hunger and homelessness. They include numerous community service projects, such as food drives, clothing collections, holiday baskets, participation in concerts raising money to help families in need, that involve the staff, students, parents and others at the city’s four elementary schools and Cony High School.

“The good news is a lot is happening in all the schools already,” Grant said. “The sad part is there is still a need in the community.”

As of Dec. 1, the number of students identified as homeless in the city’s schools, according to data provided to Grant from school officials, was 20 students in pre-kindergarten to grade six, four students in grades seven and eight, and 10 students in grades nine to 12.

A backpack program, which provides students with food to take home with them over the weekend, currently distributes 128 bags. Cony has nine students on a waiting list for bags of food.

The bags are provided by the Augusta Food Bank, Good Shepherd and Pathway Vineyard Church. Students in the special needs program at Cony help pack and deliver the bags to the schools.

The Head Start program used to provide transportation, but federal requirements added several years ago made that too expensive to continue. Daniels said some students ride there on the Kennebec Explorer regional transportation system’s buses, which drop them right outside the door.

Donations of clothing, books and money are welcome there, but because of federal rules, donations of food are not.

Daniels said members of Cushnoc Senior Citizens donate about 300 pairs of mittens, scarves and hats they knit every year. The knitted items they can’t use are passed on to other places where there are children who can use them.

“This is really pulling together the community assets we have,” Grant said of the Head Start program and efforts in local schools to help people in need. “We need to bring awareness to what is happening and identify voids and needs that might be there.”

Keith Edwards

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