BY HANNAH LESTER
LEE COUNTY – The Alabama Council on Human Relations Inc. (ACHR) provides opportunities for families in Lee County and beyond to grow and learn together.
The nonprofit organization is based in Auburn and includes 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 in Opelika, the Frank B. King Center is in Auburn, and the Marian Wright Edelman Center is in Hurtsboro.
The Early Head Start program has two aspects – center-based education for children and home visitation for children and families.
THE EARLY HEAD START HOME BASE PROGRAM
The Early Head Start Home Base Program is designed to teach children, parents and families from home.
“We provide child development and parenting support services to pregnant women and families with children up to the age of 3,” said Pam Heartsill, the educator of the Early Head Start Home Base program. “The services are of course free of charge and are 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 special needs children.
“Each of our home visitors carries a case load of 11 to 12 families at a time, and that really gives them an opportunity to get to know the families on a pretty sympathetic level,” Heartsill said.
Heartsill has worked for the agency for 24 years and has been an instructor for the Early Head Start Home Base Program for 22 years.
She was originally in the Center-Based Education program before becoming a home visitor.
“ACHR’s EHS Home Program also provides educational services for pregnant teens and teenage parents in the Lee and Russell County school systems,” the program’s website states. “Through a partnership with RIF’s Shared Beginnings literacy program, teenage parents and their children receive books and participate in fun activities that promote early language and literacy.”
EARLY ADVANTAGE – CENTER BASED
“Early Head Start serves more than 80 pregnant women, infants and young children,” the website says. “The center-based program serves infants and young children in a mixed-age group with one teacher and four children, and is available to mothers who are working or at school.”
Head Start is where the kids go after Early Head Start. It looks after children aged 3 to 5 years.
“Head Start provides education, health, parent engagement and social services designed to prepare children ages 3 to 5 for entry into public school,” the website reads. “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 years old. Most classrooms are 17 or fewer children in a mixed-age group.”
A Darden Head Start educator, Yolanda Pittman, said it is an option when other programs are not affordable for families.
“This program has a great impact on the community because it allows children to receive a quality education and it doesn’t burden the family by having to pay for child care,” she said.
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH:
Head Start prepares children to be both physically and mentally healthy.
Natalie Stephens is a Registered Nutritionist and Certified Fitness Instructor for Head Start and Health, Mental Health and Disability Coordinator for ACHR.
“We make sure they have a medical home, a dental home, Medicaid or insurance,” she said. “Medicaid pays dentists after a year, a lot of parents don’t know that.”
There are also health screenings for children, such as hearing tests. The food on offer is also balanced and nutritious.
The program offers community members assistance with lighting and heating bills, in addition to all of the family and childcare services it offers.
“[People] can be helped once in the heating program and once in the cooling program [lighting bills]said Tabitha Perry, CSBG, administrative assistant and emergency services coordinator. “If they have an illness we can help them and if they provide a pharmacy printout showing they take medication every day we can help them twice in winter and twice in summer but that’s only if we have the means to have.”
The program also offers a senior citizen outreach program and rental assistance.
For more information about these ways to get help, go to the website: www.achr.com/adult-services/emergency-services-csbg/.
THE SUN SHOP:
The Sunshine Shop is a donation center under the Head Start program.
“We take donations and then give clothes, shoes, household items, anything that is donated to our fundraiser, we accept it and then offer it to our community members in need and our families for free. said Sharon Smith, who runs the store and has been with the organization for 14 years. “…We have been truly, truly blessed with many parishioners from the Auburn and Opelika areas and Smiths Station giving donations. And they’re happy to donate because we don’t sell it.”
The place where you can donate to the shop is Avenue E Building 1 (behind Darden Center, 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 opportunity to see a child they worked with years later. Occasionally, children involved in the program who have graduated return to enroll their own children. Sometimes it is the parents who later decide to work with the program themselves.
“When we see the success of families, and sometimes we don’t see it right away, it’s some things that we won’t see for 10 or 15 years, but because I’ve been here for so long, I’ve been able to see some of those things,” Heartsill said . “I say this to all my employees: They will not always immediately see the positive sides. It comes later and sometimes we don’t even see it.”
Smith said she once had the opportunity to see a former student at the grocery store.
“The joys of it are endless,” she said. “I have kids I met through Head Start who call me every day [say] thank you and they don’t forget the people who help them when they are little. For example, I’ve been to Winn Dixie and the Bag Boy, he’s grown up and I haven’t seen him for a long time. But he kept looking at me, and then he walked up to me and wrapped his arms around me. And he said, ‘I love you, Ms. Sharon.’”
Pittman, who has been an educator for 24 years, attended Head Start in North Carolina herself.
“I knew this was my heartbeat, working with families and children, and my Head Start program in North Carolina had such an impact on my life that I decided to dedicate my life to Head Start and working with families and children work.” She said.
For more information on Head Start, visit the website: www.achr.com.