Funds sought for play space

Federal budget cut deprives newly built Head Start facility of promised playground

March 12, 2006|By MARY GAIL HARE | MARY GAIL HARE,SUN REPORTER

The children in the Carroll County Head Start program are attending preschool in bright, state-of-the art classrooms equipped with the latest innovations in early-childhood education.

Buses bring them to the centrally located, newly constructed building near downtown Westminster. The youngsters, their teachers and their parents have the entire ground floor rent-free in the Carroll County Nonprofit Center.

All they lack is a playground.

The center, built by a Georgia-based charity and offered at no charge to about a dozen county nonprofit organizations, came with a fenced-in area just outside the children's classrooms. It would be an ideal playground, but, without an assist from the community, that plot could remain empty.

Sister Nancy Stiles, director of the federally funded preschool program that, in Carroll County, is run by Catholic Charities, had expected a federal grant to pay for filling the play area with slides, swings and climbing equipment.

But the promise of a playground for nearly 75 children has disappeared amid a series of federal budget cuts to human services programs across the nation.

"There was a one-time improvement grant available with an emphasis on building or improving playgrounds," Stiles said. "But those funds were cut and are no longer available. So I have the space. I have trees and a fence surrounding a playground area but no playground equipment."

Stiles needs to raise about $50,000 to pave - ideally, with a rubber surface - the 1,900-square-foot space and equip it.

"We need a safe outdoor space that meets all the standards," she said. She is asking the community for help, appealing to civic organizations and fraternal groups, as well as to families of her students.

Catholic Charities is ardently supportive of Head Start and the fundraising effort, said Kerrie Burch-DeLuca, director of communications.

"There is this amazing gift of a building that is centrally located and serving the community so well," said Burch-DeLuca. "Without the playground, it is like the children are all dressed up with nowhere to go."

Audrey Cimino, director of the Community Foundation of Carroll County, said Head Start is not asking the impossible.

"People will respond," Cimino said. "We already have pledges for about a third of the money, and we are reaching out to organizations interested in helping children."

Head Start, which provides a free education to young children from low-income families, moved into the ground level of the $6 million, three-story center this year. Until the building opened in January, Head Start classes were scattered throughout Westminster in two elementary schools and an office building near the county airport. The program would have soon lost its classrooms to rising elementary enrollments, and space was running out in the airport complex.

The new facility includes four fully furnished, child-friendly classrooms, as well as conference rooms, offices and an indoor playground where the children can expend their energy on bad-weather days. But as spring approaches, the children and their teachers were looking forward to playtime outdoors.

"The playground would be the icing on the cake," said Cimino, whose offices are on the building's first floor. "We have the space, but we don't want children playing in the mud."

The plan calls for the standard swings and slides, as well as a track to ride tricycles - a design request that came directly from the children.

The recent budget cuts affected human services programs across the country, Stiles said.

"Those grants are just gone," she said.

The same organization that built the nonprofit center has offered financial help for the playground and several associations have already made pledges, for a total of about $17,000, Stiles said. Cimino is certain the community will donate the rest of the funds.

"This building itself is a fabulous gift to the community," Cimino said. "All we are asking is for the community to get behind this completely doable project."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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