Children Play Alone After Shutdown Closes Head Start Programs

Faith Thomas, 4, played with ants on a deserted playground in Tallahassee, Florida, instead of learning how to read. She wore a purple T-shirt with multicolored letters reading: “The Future Belongs to Me.”

A casualty of the federal government shutdown that began Oct. 1, Faith is one of thousands of low-income children who were abruptly cut from Head Start preschool programs.

“Mommy, I touched bugs,” she shouted to her mother, Victoria Thomas, 26. Thomas, a graduate student in agribusiness at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, has struggled to find alternative care for Faith after Congress failed to agree on funding Head Start and other federal programs. She’s been taking her daughter to campus with her since the Head Start program closed.

As the shutdown heads into its fourth day, cases like Faith’s highlight the growing toll on Americans, and the mounting pressure on lawmakers to restore government services. Head Start offers educational programs and health care nationally for 967,000 U.S. children from birth to age 5 whose parents live at the poverty line, which is $19,530 a year for a family of three. The program costs $8 billion a year.

‘Help Us’

“I cannot afford to pay child care. I am a single mother with low income and no help from my child’s father,” Thomas wrote in e-mails to her U.S. senators, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson, and Republican Governor Rick Scott after the Concord Head Start Center closed its doors on Sept. 30. “Can you please help us?”

Head Start programs covering almost 19,000 children in Florida, nine other states and Puerto Rico lost federal funding on Oct. 1, according to Sally Aman, a spokeswoman for the Alexandria, Virginia-based National Head Start Association. At least one of those states -- Massachusetts -- provided stopgap funding to keep the program running, and Aman said more are trying to do so. Other states received federal funding on a different timetable and still have money.

Hundreds of parents and supporters of Head Start rallied near the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 2 to urge Congress to reopen the government and the early childhood-education program.

“It is a horrible and tragic series of events that has potential to really have drastic changes to our community,” said Tim Center, who runs Head Start programs for 400 children in three Florida counties. Parents were warned last week that Head Start programs would close if government funding ended.

Bouncing Ponytail

In Faith’s case, no school bus came this week to pick her up at 6:30 a.m., the usual time. Instead, she slept in until about 10 a.m., and spent her days with her uncle-turned-babysitter and trailing her mother to college.

Faith spent much of yesterday afternoon on her mother’s campus. Thomas was there to check on her student loans, which she said may need to increase to afford day care if the Head Start center doesn’t reopen soon.

During an hour at the office waiting room, Faith darted restlessly around the room, her braided ponytail bouncing behind her in a cluster of purple plastic beads. She sat on the floor and unzipped her pink backpack, which bore the words “Friendship is the Best Medicine.” She pulled out her Disney-themed alphabet book and turned to the letter F.

“F is my name,” she said. “Faith.”

Thomas said she feared Faith may regress in her efforts to learn to read if she’s out of school for more than a few days.

Name Writing

Head Start began in 1965 as a way to prepare poor children for kindergarten, providing educational activities for 3- and 4-year-olds. Faith will start kindergarten next year.

“She’s increased her motor skills, she can write her name and she was supposed to be learning how to read,” Thomas said. “I’ve tried to substitute what she’s learning, but it’s difficult.”

Thomas said she rearranged her schedule to try and keep her daughter learning. As she juggles coursework and job interviews, she has tried to organize Faith’s day with coloring books and reading exercises. Yesterday, she said she had to take Faith with her to campus.

“If this doesn’t end soon, I’m putting her in day care,” Thomas said as her daughter slipped through a crowd of college students to the other side of the financial aid office.

Thomas has been taking Faith to the playground every day, even though there are no other children there to watch her practice her cheerleading routine or push her down the slide. Instead, she played with ants and a stuffed Minnie Mouse doll.

Thomas said she wrote e-mails to her lawmakers as a last resort.

“They need to know that this situation is affecting a lot of families,” she said. “I’m not sure if they don’t know, or if they don’t care.”

Forgetting Numbers

Faith’s teacher, Venita Treadwell, said she worried that the 20 children in her class may forget how to tie their shoes, count and spell their names during a prolonged shutdown -- especially if they end up with preoccupied babysitters or in front of a television all day, she said.

“If I’m concerned about my food, and where I’m going to rest and somebody loving and caring about me, then I’m not thinking about my concepts of ABCs, 123s or how to learn how to read,” said Treadwell, who was furloughed this week.

Children living in poverty may go hungry or get sick as they miss the Head Start program’s free meals and medical services.

“They told us to watch the news and pray,” said Christine Forde, whose daughter, Lyriq, is in the same class with Faith. Forde, who works two jobs and is taking Internet classes, had to find $300 for last-minute day care.

She said she blamed both Congress and President Barack Obama for acting “like immature kids.”

“Being a single parent, having to work two jobs and go to school, that program is so important,” said Forde, 30. “It picks up the slack for me when I’m not able to have that extra time to teach my daughter how to read and write.”

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