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New Carroll center ‘a saving grace’

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Tonya Weber began seeing the rewards soon after New Opportunities opened the doors of its first-ever Early Head Start Center in Carroll last month.

“One little one really struggled the first day, had a little bit of a hard time the second day, but by the third or fourth day, when he arrived, he held his arms out to the teacher,” Weber recalled.

“Oh my gosh, that’s what we’re here looking for, that bond they start to develop as they become familiar with that caregiver.”

Weber is Head Start/Early Head Start director who worked to secure a federal grant that brought New Opportunities’ goal of opening the center to fruition.

New Opportunities opened the center in a building at 1617 E. 10th St., which was owned by Lenz Leasing Inc. and was occupied in the past by Midwest Seed, Channel Bio and most recently Bayer. The grant allowed New Opportunities to purchase the Carroll site as well as purchase and renovate a facility already in use for Early Head Start Center in Perry. The complete grant amount to start the centers in Carroll and Perry was $2,461,169 — $1,316,960 in Carroll and $1,144,209 in Perry.

Heuton Construction built the 7,700-square-foot Carroll building in 2006 and was contractor again for remodeling that included turning large, open, cubicle space into classrooms. The center now has four classrooms, five offices and two conference rooms on the main level. Downstairs there’s a commercial kitchen, storage and a large room used both for kids’ activities and staff training. An elevator also was installed.

“It’s absolutely beautiful. The center has worked out amazingly,” Weber said.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website, “Early Head Start programs provide intensive comprehensive child development and family support services to low-income infants and toddlers and their families, and to pregnant women and their families.”

New Opportunities has provided some services with home visitations, but the center-based Early Head Start is new. New Opportunities over the years has offered classroom Head Start for children 3 to 5.

The new Early Head Start center has capacity for 32 children, with classrooms divided by ages for children infants to 9 months, 9 months to 18 months, and toddlers. The center opened with nine children and currently has nearly 20 enrolled.

New Opportunities keeps a waiting list and always accepts applications. Contact New Opportunities at 712-792-9266.

“We have families move or make different decisions about what they’re doing. We’re frequently filling in and pulling from that list,” Weber said.

The center primarily will serve Carroll County-area families but also may accept children from surrounding counties whose families come to Carroll for work or school.

Priority is given to children from low-income families, but consideration also is given for special circumstances, such as families with foster children or children with disabilities.

There’s no charge for the program.

“One of the cool parts about Early Head Start is that everything in this center is provided,” Weber said. “We provide diapers, we provide formula, we provide the food the children eat, we provide essentially everything. There’s nothing the families have to bring in.”

The staff consists of a lead teacher and assistant teacher for each of the four classrooms, two “floating” substitute teachers, the site supervisor, a family advocate, a home visitor and a cook, who prepares meals for both the Early Head Start Center and the Head Start Center on the New Opportunities campus on Highway 30 East.

Early Head Start is made up of many different pieces: Classroom curriculum, health screenings, social and emotional evaluations, goal-setting with families, family activities and home visits.

The classrooms utilize age-appropriate curriculums — from snuggling with infants, to music and movement, to teaching of social skills and more.

“We’re doing observation and making sure kids are hitting developmental milestones,” Weber said. “It’s super important because if we have a kiddo who isn’t hitting those milestones, then we want to make sure we do what’s necessary early on.”

“Just like Head Start, it is child care, but it’s so much more encompassing,” Site Supervisor Michelle Glick said.

Glick said “Early Head Start and Head Start are known for the involvement they have with families. We really want to bring families into the process with their children and not just have conferences every so often. It’s more than that. It’s about keeping in contact with families. It’s about setting goals with the families — what do they want to accomplish for themselves, and then what to they want to accomplish with their child?”

New Opportunities CEO Chad Jensen commented, “We are extremely excited to see the center open and to be able to offer families and children high-quality, curriculum-based child care through the Early Head Start center. The Early Head Start center provides New Opportunities with additional ways to meet the needs of families and children in Carroll County.”

He added, “The Early Head Start building is a fantastic location with large, open classrooms for children to play and grow. Every child within the Early Head Start center-based program receives the full suite of services including healthful meals and snacks, curriculum-based education, family engagement and health screenings.

The need for an Early Head Start Center in Carroll was evident in New Opportunities’ most-recent community-needs assessment, Weber said.

That survey indicated a large majority of families said they’re using family and friends, not registered, licensed providers, for child care.

“Registered child care is quality child care that’s monitored by (the Iowa Department of Human Services). Homes or centers have to meet standards,” Weber said. “We saw there was a need for child care for lower-income families, which set us on track to see if we could get center-based care for those families who are trying to work, but, unfortunately, if they have no child care, how can they work? How can they be a consistent employee?”

The center is meant to accommodate parents who are working or attending school and is open from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday throughout the year except holidays. It’s not an open child care program where parents can drop off their children or pick them up at any time.

The center must be open to children at least 1,380 hours a year. Early Head Start holds conferences three times a year with parents and will resume in-person home visits with families after restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic are eased.

Weber said that in the future she will seek more funding in order to expand the center’s hours, which will require more staff.

All staff currently are working full weeks, including daily direct care, lesson-planning, cleaning rooms and more.

“The goal eventually is longer hours, but one thing at a time,” Weber said.

Staff have to meet education qualifications, or New Opportunities can help obtain those. The center can’t just hire anybody part time.

Plans also call for adding an outdoor playground — with an artificial turf and equipment — on the northwest side of the building.

One mom with a son in Early Head Start calls the new center a saving grace for her family.

“As a mother to four kids, all whom have been involved with the Head Start program, my youngest son, now involved with Early Head Start Center, is thriving,” she said. “My youngest has been delayed with many different milestones, and we’ve been working so hard at providing all help he needs to thrive. Since he has been in the center, I have noticed him start to hit these important milestones. The fact they are able to teach and yet help our younger kiddos is undeniably amazing. Watching my 2½-year-old start to use songs as a way to help him transition from one activity to another has been such a blessing.

“The teacher and assistant in the classroom have been absolutely amazing. Miss Kelly (Meiners) is a godsend. She has been involved with all four of my kiddos since we started this program in 2015. Five years later she is still making such a difference in these children’s lives. The way she aids the kids in learning about sharing and teaching them through songs to help them with their language development is unbelievably incredible.

“Having this center for the younger kids allows parents like myself the ability to go to school and work, which we would not have been able to do as we don’t necessarily have child care. I’m now able to sleep during the days as I work overnights, and not worry about whether my son is being cared for in a learning environment. Education is so important to me, and I pride myself on making sure my children understand the importance of it for life. When asked why I put my 2-year-old into a program like the Early Head Start Center, I simply respond, ‘Absolutely no one is too young or old to learn.’ So thank you to the teachers, assistants, family advocates and everyone else at New Opportunities for making this goal and dream a reality for so many families who struggle every day. We appreciate you all and are so excited for the future.”

Site Supervisor Glick said it’s heartening to see the children become more comfortable with the Early Head Start caregivers.

“Right now it’s challenging (because of the pandemic),” she said. “Parents aren’t able to go into the classroom with their children. They’re dropping them off at the door. The fact those kids are trusting their teachers enough that they’re willing to reach their hands out and go to them speaks to the attachment that they’re already forming.”

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