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Cuts impact youngest children

By Sarah L. Smith
Coastal Observer

Georgetown County First Steps is struggling to stay alive.

Unsuccessful grant applications and a loss of $200,000 in state funds will force the organization to cut 80 of its 130 student scholarships next month, said Carol Daly, the nonprofit’s executive director. It has already laid off seven employees.

Cuts will affect at-risk children across Georgetown County, but children on the Waccamaw Neck who attend Pawleys Island Childcare Center will lose the most money. Approximately 85 percent of all the scholarships go to the Pawleys Island area, Daly said.

“We just feel like the house is on fire and nobody’s called the fire department,” said Geales Sands, executive director of the Bunnelle Foundation.

The foundation gave $200,000 to First Steps for the 2010 fiscal year. That money was used to keep three employees on staff.

“The Bunnelle Foundation thinks of itself as an advocate for children,” Sands said. “The question is, are we the only ones who think children are important?”

Looking for an answer, the foundation invited community leaders to an early childhood education summit in Litchfield conference center this week.

It was the first time the foundation invited the community to a brainstorming session.

“It’s our maiden voyage,” Sands said.

“Let’s not let them out the door until we have a plan for saving this important program,” said Nancy Bracken, a Bunnelle Foundation consultant.

Reps. Carl Anderson and Vida Miller and Sens. Ray Cleary and Yancey McGill, offered any support the community needed, including talking to the state’s congressional delegation.

“This meeting you called today is one of the best meetings I’ve heard of in years,” McGill said.

McGill, who represents Georgetown, Florence, Williamsburg and Horry counties, said if counties ask for grants together, they’re more likely to receive them.

Cleary recommended focusing on federal funds. The state budget will continue to tighten next year, he said, so federal money and stimulus funds, seem a more likely solution to First Steps’ financial woes.

Either spend the money now or spend more later, Daly told the leaders gathered in the room.

“By age 3 and 4, remediation is just too late,” said Susan DeVenny, the executive director of South Carolina First Steps.

For every dollar invested in quality early intervention, such as a center of excellence, DeVenny said the state saves $12 million by keeping children from repeating classes and by paying for fewer remediation services and special education services.

Teaching at-risk children their letters, numbers, colors, and even basic math skills before age 5 helps get them ready for first grade, she said.

Since the programs began in 2004, First Steps children have not repeated grades or needed remediation, said Jon Tester, Georgetown County School District’s executive director of elementary school education.

“Any help we can get with these students, they need it,” he said.

A fund-raising event is planned this month in Murrells Inlet.

If it doesn’t raise the $200,000 First Steps needs, the brainstorming session produced about 30 promotion and fund-raising ideas.

George Stevens, executive director of the Coastal Community Foundation of South Carolina, led the session. Sands said Stevens has a way of getting even the quietest groups to talk.

As soon as Stevens opened the floor for suggestions, hands shot up and people called out ideas. He scribbled down each suggestion on giant white Post-its that soon littered one wall.

After people thew out suggestions such as a media campaign, talking to wealthy people and working with other counties, the group determined that the state and federal governments both need to know how important early childhood education is to South Carolina. Asking lawmakers in Washington to find money for the program could be a first step, Stevens suggested.

Tom Keegan, a former state representative, attended the meeting on behalf of U.S. Rep. Henry Brown. The group agreed they’d ask Keegan to speak to the congressional delegation.

Talk of local fund-raising and federal money turned to state initiatives.

“Somehow to sustain this long term is going to require lots of people coming together,” said Georgetown County School Board Member Teresa Bennani.

Calling a state early childhood education summit to raise awareness and help First Steps find other partners was another idea.

With so many suggestions, Stevens recommended the group select people to form a steering committee. It would organize the brainstorming lists, prioritize ideas and create committees that could turn those dreams into reality.

“It’s very exciting to hear the energy in the room,” Daly said. “I’d love to see it continue.”

She doesn’t know what will happen between the meeting and Dec. 1, the day she’ll start to call parents and tell them their child doesn’t have a scholarship for child care next year.

Daly hopes the fund-raiser will collect enough money to save some of the scholarships.

“Who do I choose?” she asked the group. “How do I tell the grandparents who are taking care of their grandchildren while their children are out of state looking for work that they no longer have paid child care?”

The Cliff and Carolyn Ellis Foundation will sponsor a dinner and auction fund-raiser on Nov. 30 from 6 to 10 p.m. at Dave’s Dockside restaurant in Murrells Inlet to raise money for student scholarships.

The event is $50 and includes dinner, drinks, entertainment and a silent auction featuring a golf cart, items signed by Steve Spurrier and Dabo Swinney and more.

For tickets, call 357-2064.

To sponsor a child at a center of excellence, mail tax-deductible contributions to Georgetown County First Steps, P.O. Box 531, Georgetown, SC 29442 or stop by the First Steps office in the Beck Administration Building at 2018 Church St. in Georgetown.

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