New school year bring changes to Sarasota Head Start Program

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Posted: Wednesday, August 21, 2013 7:49 am | Updated: 7:54 am, Wed Aug 21, 2013.

Sarasota, FL-More than 500 children from low-income families, as well as children with disabilities, in Sarasota County rely on Children First, the county’s exclusive provider of Early Head Start and Head Start programming, for full-day pre-school, infant and toddler care, and nutritional and health care assistance. Through Children First, students receive two nutritious meals each day and work with well-trained and nurturing teachers and staff to gain the social and cognitive skills they will need in order to enter elementary school on track. In total, the organization runs 13 facilities that offer services throughout the county.

Children First also helps the students’ families with parenting skills and literacy classes,  career training, and referrals for housing, food, clothing and employment assistance.  All are critical when you consider that the average annual income for the families Children First serves is at or below the federal poverty guidelines of $19,530 for a family of three.

“Our goal is to help the kids and families we serve achieve their full potential by addressing the educational, nutritional, healthcare, housing and employment needs they have in order to gain self-sufficiency,” says Philip Tavill, CEO of Children First. “Unfortunately, that challenge became tougher this year due to federal budget cuts affecting Head Start and Early Head Start.”

 The budget cuts mentioned by Tavill are ones affecting more than 57,000 preschoolers nationwide and are the result of the federal budget sequester that went into effect this past March. Due to the sequester, Children First will lose more than $250,000 in aid from the federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs between now and December 31. As a result, the organization is able to serve 56 fewer families this year, or roughly a 10% reduction in the total number of families they have served in years past.

“We’ve been aggressive in addressing the shortfall internally. Our staff has taken pay cuts and furloughs. We’ve also reduced a number of positions and trimmed our budget as much as possible,” said Tavill.  “But it’s still not enough. In the end, we are going to need additional private donations in order to make up the federal budget cuts.”

In an effort to increase private donations between now and the end of the year, Children First is planning a direct mail campaign to supporters and friends this fall and is increasing its outreach efforts to community clubs and business organizations. They are also in the process of developing an email and social media campaign, as well as a series of public service announcements, to raise awareness about the organization and the families it serves.

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