BY HANNAH LESTER
LEE COUNTY — The Alabama Council on Human Relations Inc. (ACHR) is providing opportunities in Lee County and beyond for families to grow and learn together.
The nonprofit organization is centered in Auburn and encompasses the Head Start program, Early Head Start program, Community Services Block Grant programs and Housing Counseling.
There are Head Start programs in Auburn, Opelika and Hurtsboro; The Darden Center Complex is located in Opelika, the Frank B. King Center in Auburn and the Marian Wright Edelman Center in Hurtsboro.
EARLY HEAD START:
The Early Head Start Program encompasses two aspects — center based education for children and home visits for children and families.
THE EARLY HEAD START HOME BASE PROGRAM
The Early Head Start Home Base Program is in place to educate children, parents and families from their homes.
“We provide child development and parent support services to pregnant women and families with children birth to 3 years old,” said Pam Heartsill, the educator of the Early Head Start Home Base program. “The services of free, of course, and they’re provided through weekly home visits and group socialization activities for parents and their children.”
Education and activities may include prenatal and postpartum support and information, developmental screenings, socialization with other parents, finding necessary resources for parents or education and support for parents of children with special needs.
“Each of our home visitors carry a case load of 11 to 12 families each, and so they really have an opportunity to get to know the families on a pretty personable level,” Heartsill said.
Heartsill has been serving the agency for 24 years and as the Early Head Start Home Base Program educator for 22 years.
She was originally in the Center-Based Education program before becoming a home visitor.
“ACHR’s EHS home based program also provides educational services to pregnant teens and teen parents in the Lee and Russell County school systems,” said the program’s website. “Through a partnership with the RIF Shared Beginnings literacy program, teen parents and their children receive books and engage in fun activities promoting early language and literacy.”
EARLY HEAD START – CENTER BASED
“Early Head Start serves more than 80 pregnant women, infants and toddlers,” the website said. “ The Center Based Program serves infants and toddlers in a multi-age grouping with one teacher and four children and is available to mothers who are working or in school.”
Head Start is where children will head after Early Head Start. It services children ages 3 to 5.
“Head Start provides educational, health, parent engagement and social services designed to prepare children ages 3 to 5 for entry into public school,” the website said. “Together the Frankie B. King Center in Auburn, the Darden Center in Opelika and the Marian Wright Edelman Center in Hurtsburo, Alabama, serve more than 350 children ages 3 to 5. Most classrooms consist of 17 or fewer children in a mixed age group.”
One educator with Darden Head Start, Yolanda Pittman, said that this is an option when other programs aren’t affordable for families.
“This program has a major impact in the community because it allows children to get a quality education and it doesn’t burden the family, having to pay for childcare,” she said.
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH:
Head Start prepares children to be both physically and mentally well.
Natalie Stephens serves as registered dietician and certified fitness instructor for Head Start and health and mental health and disabilities coordinator for ACHR.
“We make sure that they have medical home, dental home, Medicaid or insurance,” she said. “Medicaid pays for dentists after one year, many parents don’t know that.”
There are also health screenings for children, like hearing tests. The food served is also balanced and nutritional.
The program offers assistance to community members with lighting and heating bills, in addition to all the family and child care services it offers.
“[People] can get assistance one time in the heating program and one time in the cooling program [lighting bills],” said Tabitha Perry, CSBG, administrative assistant and emergency services coordinator. “If they have a medical condition, we can assist them and if they provide a pharmacy printout to show that they take medicine on a day-to-day basis, we can provide them assistance twice in the winter and twice in the summer, but that’s only if we have the funds.”
The program also provides an outreach program for senior citizens and rental assistance.
For more information on these ways of receiving assistance, visit the website: www.achr.com/adult-services/emergency-services-csbg/.
THE SUNSHINE SHOP:
The Sunshine Shop is a donation center as part of the Head Start Program.
“We take in donations and then we give clothing, shoes, household items, anything that is donated to our donation shop, we will take it in, and then we offer it free to our community members that are in need and to our families,” said Sharon Smith, who manages the shop and has been with the organization for 14 years. “… We have been really, really blessed with a lot of community members from the Auburn and Opelika and Smiths Station area to donate. And they love to donate because we don’t sell it.”
The location to donate to the shop is Avenue E Building 1 (behind Darden Center at 601 S. 4th St. in Opelika).
The program as a whole wants to recruit families, many of the women said.
Sometimes program educators and visitors have the chance to see a child they worked with years later. Occasionally, children involved in the program who graduated return to enroll their own children. Sometimes it’s parents who decide to work with the program themselves later on.
“Seeing the success of the families and sometimes we don’t see it right away, it’s some things that we don’t see until 10 or 15 years down the road, but being here so long I have been able to see some of those things,” Heartsill said. “It’s what I tell all my staff, you’re not always going to see the positives right away. It comes later and sometimes we don’t even see it.”
Smith said she once had the chance to see a former student at the grocery store.
“The joys of it are endless,” she said. “I have children that I’ve met through Head Start that they call me daily and [say] thanks and they don’t forget people who help them when they’re little. For instance, I was at Winn Dixie and the bag boy, he grew up and I didn’t see him for a long time. But he kept looking at me, and then he came up and wrapped his arms around me. And he said, ‘I love you Ms. Sharon.’”
Pittman, who has served as an educator for 24 years, participated in Head Start herself in North Carolina.
“I knew this was where my heart was, working with families and children and my Head Start Program back in North Carolina had such an impact on my life that I decided to devote my life to Head Start and to work with families and children,” she said.
For more on Head Start, visit the website: www.achr.com.