New Head Start to open doors

Posted: Sunday, January 28, 2001

After years of discussion, the Sterling Head Start program will open its doors Monday at Mile 81.5 Sterling Highway, next to Cook's Corner Tesoro.

An open house will be held from noon to 7 p.m. for those interested in the program, said Grace Merkes who has organized and spearheaded the program.

"It is an opportunity for parents to talk to staff about enrolling their children," said Merkes, who serves on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. Also, parents with already enrolled children can come in to fill out paper work.

The program will officially begin Tuesday with two sessions, a morning and afternoon session, both lasting three and a half hours.

Head Start, a preschool program funded both federally and by the state, serves low-income children aged 3 to 5 and their families. The program offers early social and learning activities to prepare children for success in primary school and helps parents access health, dental and nutritional resources for their children. Head Start stresses volunteers, parental involvement and community partnerships.

The existing Head Start program in the central peninsula is the Kenaitze Cuya Qyut'anen Head Start in Kenai sponsored by the Kenaitze Indian Tribe. Homer and Seward also have Head Start programs.

The Sterling Head Start program is sponsored by the Rural Alaska Community Action Program (RurAL CAP), a private, statewide, nonprofit corporation that promotes quality-of-life improvements for low-income Alaskans. RurAL CAP's Child Development Division will handle funding arrangements and oversee the Sterling program's operation. It also sponsors the Head Start programs in Homer and Seward.

"The program has a dual purpose," said RurAL CAP regional director Deb Bruno of the emphasis on families and children.

A full-time family advocate will offer parenting and employment skill training, while the children will be screened for vision and hearing. Dental and physical exams also are required.

"The purpose is to catch issues or problems and get them fixed or eliminated before (the child enters) school," Bruno said.

Merkes said the program prepares children, "which leads to better students in the school system."

According to Merkes, the program received a Federal Head Start Expansion grant that is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Eighty percent of the program is federally funded by the grant, while the remaining 20 percent is funded by state and local money and in-kind services.

Under the grant, the program can facilitate up to 38 children, she said.

The program presents a partnership opportunity for anyone interested in opening a licensed day-care center in Sterling as well as providing nine jobs in the Sterling community including.

Merkes said the program will hire a child care advocate soon.

Two Head Start buses will be on hand to pick up and drop off children within the service area, which includes portions of Soldotna to the Sterling boundaries. Each bus can hold up to 16 children, Merkes said.

She said the program has received a great deal of support from the community, including a donation of office space. Bruno also praised the locally built birch furniture, calling it "gorgeous."

Merkes said her involvement in the program will not end with the doors opening.

"I will continue to be a great supporter of the program," she said.

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