Head Start programs in region are spared in shutdown

While the more than 500 families with children who attend Head Start programs in New London County are not affected by the government shutdown, in Bridgeport, more than 1,000 youngsters were turned away Monday from the all-day preschool programs and more than 300 staff were temporarily laid off.

"There's a human element here," said Charles Tisdale, executive director of Action for Bridgeport Community Development, which operates 16 centers in the greater Bridgeport area.

"People were standing out here very upset. This rips their families apart," he said Wednesday. "They are now beginning to understand how that decision in Washington has adversely affected them."

Because of the government shutdown, ABCD did not receive its federal grant Oct. 1 to continue operating.

At Thames Valley Council for Community Action, roughly 530 families bring their children to Early Head Start and Head Start programs throughout southeastern Connecticut.

"We are very fortunate we are not affected," said Deborah Monahan, executive director of TVCCA. The federal contract with TVCCA begins April 1, Monahan said, and therefore, funding is in place through April 2014.

But some parents who bring their children to one of the Head Start programs in Groton said they are unsure what will happen next.

Rebeca Mendez said she'd have to find a way to make it work if the center closed, but she doesn't know how she'd do it. Her sons are 3 and 4, and both were put on a waiting list when they were born.

"I don't have anybody to take care of my kids when I work," she said. "They want us to work, but we need to have the means, too. How can I find a job and work when I don't have anyone to watch my kids and do that?"

She said parents don't know what's happening with the government shutdown, and she believes they should.

"So we can have a voice," she said. "I mean, who knows best what people need more than the people in these programs?"

Mendez's sister, Valerie Bocachica, who also has two children, 4 and 10 months, enrolled in Head Start, said she works in the morning while her children attend the program. She does not know what she would do if the center closed.

"Right now, there are no centers that are taking the kids. The waiting lists are horrible," Bocachica said.

In Bridgeport, many of the parents of the children who attend Head Start there are working for the first time, Tisdale said. In addition, 10 percent of the children have special needs, and professionals at the centers work with them every day. The center also provides two meals a day.

"These are disadvantaged children. If they are out for a week or two, they lose everything we helped them gain," he said. "This will have long-term effects. It will affect them for the rest of their lives."

Parents are uncertain how long the shutdown will last, he said.

"Some are now afraid they won't be able to pay their rent and will be evicted,'' said Tisdale, who was answering phones at the ABCD offices Wednesday. "You see these people and it just makes you cry. They have no confidence in the democracy we live in."

Tisdale said he has been on the phone with the Connecticut congressional delegation asking them to try and persuade their colleagues to "do the right thing."

There are about 1,600 Head Start programs throughout the country that provide education, health, nutrition and other services to roughly 1 million low-income children and their families.

On Tuesday, the National Head Start Association issued a statement chastising politicians for being "mired in an absurd and childish stand-off and unable to decide on a budget" that would leave about 19,000 children without Head Start services. Twenty-three programs in 11 states did not receive federal grant money on Oct. 1.

"This abdication of responsibility by Congress and leaders in Washington has further displaced the at-risk children already reeling from sequester," said Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the national group. "Government shutdown is one cut atop an already deep wound."

k.edgecomb@theday.com

Staff Writer Deborah Straszheim also contributed to this report.

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