BROOKSVILLE - A breakdown in communication in Washington that froze billions in federal funding will be acutely felt by 225 Hernando County children and their families in poverty.
Hernando Mid Florida Community Services Head Start Brooksville and Spring Hill are partial recipients of a federal grant just shy of $9 million, which funds child and family development services for a total of 924 three-and four-year old children from low-income families in Hernando, Sumter and Volusia counties.
As one of eight such programs in the state with a grant funding year between Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, the two centers were forced to close its doors indefinitely on Friday in the absence of federal funding.
"The hardest thing, I think, is not only do we provide education services, but two-thirds of their medical needs, and dental if needed," said Head Start Assistant Director Amy Thomas. "We also work with parents looking for a job, or getting their GED and going back to school, so we really support the whole family."
Children in Hernando whose basic food requirements were previously met by the program's now-furloughed 125 staff members has been compromised by the shutdown, Thomas said. The two sites sent letters Tuesday to parents notifying them of a potential closure, and again on Thursday conveying to parents hope that any closure will be a temporary one.
"We have a very large number of single parent families, grandparents raising their children, and we have two families not making enough to make ends meet," Thomas said. "We were vital support for them, because they were not making enough to purchase private child care."
Private child care costs more than $100 a week, Thomas said
"We refer (parents) to outside sources to find assistance, and they are able to do that because their children are safe with us throughout the day," Thomas said. "Parents have said, 'I can lose my job over this. Before, if I don't have anybody else to look after my child, I can't go to work.'"
The halt on roughly $9 million in grant funding follows $421 million in cuts nationwide for the program, which occurred during sequestration this spring, Thomas said.
So far local churches, businesses, and organizations are picking up the slack through local nonprofit People Helping People. On Friday, PHP board member Maureen Follansbee and Pat Yoos of Nativity Lutheran Church coordinated with Pine Grove Elementary guidance counselor Cindy Kufner to deliver 23 backpacks of food. It's enough food to feed 60 over the weekend, Follansbee said, and the organization is working with 12 total Hernando school sites, including both Head Start locations.
Since the government shutdown, Holy Trinity Lutheran and Grace Presbyterian churches have agreed to continue the backpack program for Head Start students and families at their church locations, Follansbee said.
"I don't know what's going to happen to these children during the day, because they're dependent on two of their meals," Follansbee said, adding that social workers with Head Start reached out to them for help. "These parents can't afford day care. They don't have day care, they can't work. They can't work, they can't buy gas to pick up the backpack."
So far several local businesses have pledged support. Jiffy Lube has cards offering 25 percent off oil changes where $3 of that purchase goes to the program. Sonny's Real Pit BBQ on U.S. 19 will also donate 15 percent of purchases next Tuesday, Oct. 8, to the program, Follansbee said.
To contact PHP or help the backpack program, call (352) 686-4466 or go to www.phpinhc.org. Anyone interested in offering assistance to the Hernando Head Start sites can call (888) 227-0010.