Stimulus funds bring Early Head Start to First Presbyterian
on January 31, 2010
The First Presbyterian Church on Broadway at the edge of downtown Oakland was built in 1913 for a congregation that had its start in the East Bay in 1853. Since then, a small warren of offices and activity rooms have sprung up around the back of the church, filling out the width of the 2600 block. From the outside, the dark stone of the old church looks rather foreboding, but the inside of the cathedral is airy and bright. Sunlight streams through the stained glass windows and plays on the giant silvered organ pipes.
The church was built to hold a congregation of a few thousand, according to Church Administrator, Di Pagel. These days, Pagel says, First Presbyterian of Oakland serves only a few hundred. This is something Pagel hopes to change, not necessarily by evangelizing, but but by building strong connections within the Oakland community by offering a location for local families to receive child services that they would not otherwise be able to afford.
In early March, the church will be opening its doors to Early Head Start, a non-profit that works in conjunction with the City of Oakland’s Health and Human Services department to run preschools and early childhood development centers for children up to age 3. In early December, Early Head Start of Oakland found that it had been awarded a $5.65 million grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the stimulus bill, to expand its Early Head Start program. According to Usana Hopkins, Early Childhood and Family Services Manager for Head Start, the new funds will allow health, nutrition, career development and child care services to be provided to an additional 200 pregnant women and families with children up to age 3, doubling the number currently served.
Twenty of those new families will soon be coming to First Presbyterian with their infants and toddlers for daycare services. “We’ve already had a few families stop by with their toddlers,” Pagel said as she headed down the hallway to where the toddler room will be.
Pagel explained that most of the toys in the toddler room – including wooden shepherd figurines and a mini-nativity set – will have to be moved to another space since many of them were part of the Godly Play program that the church runs on the weekend for children of the congregation. The space that Head Start uses will have to be clear of Bible-related toys and stories since it is a secular program open to families of all faiths.
“I’m not a big fan of huge, bright murals and primary colors for children,” Pagel said as she showed off the muted colors and natural light in the room the church has set aside for infants in a separate wing from where the toddlers will be. Bamboo cabinets covered one wall and sunlight slid in through off-white blinds leaving bright stripes on a short, curved table surrounded by little chairs. A smaller, connected room had a long counter set up as a changing table and two cribs made up with fresh bedding and colorful baby-sized quilts.
Pagel said she is pleased the space will be used. “To be in Oakland and have an open space during the week is not ethical,” Pagel said. “Being in downtown behooves us to make space available to those who really are going to serve the community.”
To qualify for Head Start services, families must have annual incomes at or under the federal poverty threshold. According to the US Census Bureau, a family of three (for example, a mother and two children) that makes $17,346 or less is considered to be living in poverty. Families with children with disabilities living at up to 110 percent of the poverty level are also eligible for services. Unless the family is in transition— that is, if the family has just moved to Oakland—or in crisis, the parents of children who will be cared for at the new center must be working, in job training or in school. Pregnant mothers and new parents who participate in Head Start programs, whether they are center-based or home-visit based, are offered parent education classes in addition to childcare from 8 am to 6 pm, five days a week.
The closest Early Head Start location to the new center at First Presbyterian is at 1117 10th St in West Oakland, according to Early Head Start’s website. The stimulus money will allow Early Head Start to add a second new center at the First African Methodist Church (warning: this link plays a sound when it is opened), which is situated in North Oakland near the Temescal district. With these two new locations, Early Head Start will have centers in most of the major Oakland neighborhoods with qualifying families.
In addition to providing a new center in downtown, which is currently considered an underserved area, according to Hopkins, the First Presbyterian site is on a bus line, near a homeless shelter Head Start is already working with, and close to downtown businesses where Head Start mothers may work, Hopkins said.
“We’re really happy to be collaborating with the church and they are excited to embrace Head Start,” Hopkins said.
Though Pagel is pleased that Early Head Start will be paying “quite a reasonable rent,” for the full time occupancy of three of the church’s rooms, she added that the church regularly offers space to groups who serve the needy and homeless but cannot afford rent. For example, the church’s elected governing board has granted regular use of the church kitchen to Food Not Bombs, a group that gathers un-purchased food from local grocery stores and then prepares it to serve to the homeless. The church has also just approved a six-month lease to Shaun Tai, a local man who runs the Oakland Digital Arts and Literacy Center, a non-profit that offers computer training to people hoping to gain new job skills.
Early Head Start hopes to hire a center director and four to five teachers to fill positions at the new center. Since the church remodeled childcare facilities in 2007, it will need to make only minimal changes to meet Head Start’s facility requirements, said Hopkins. This is a bonus, said Hopkins, as only a small portion of the grant funds will be available to prepare new spaces.
Some changes will have to be made however, and the church is already well into this process, Pagel said. The biggest project so far has been updating the old heating system, Pagel said, and the next big project will be to build a small playground on an empty patch of land on the south side of the church. The church will need to build wheelchair access, put in new drainage, set artificial grass, and build a wrought iron fence that will contain the space and keep children from wandering onto 26th Street, Pagel said. The church will need to dip into its endowment fund to cover these improvements, she said.
The one-year contract that First Prebyterian will sign with Head Start will be renewable for five years. “My hope is that, if it works, this wing could be a full Head Start program,” Pagel said as she stood in a toy-filled room next to the one where the toddler program will open this spring. She looks forward to reenergizing the church space with young people, Pagel said.
This church has been a part of the community for so long, Pagel said, ”it would be such a shame for Oakland if this church is not still standing 100 years from now.
For more information, interested families can call Early Head Start’s offices at (510) 238-3165.
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