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Education: First Steps: Funding cuts bring hard choices

By Sarah L. Smith
Coastal Observer

For single mothers struggling to make a living, child-care funding is not an option. It is a necessity.

“If it weren’t for First Steps, I wouldn’t be able to pay the amount for day care,” said Adrienne Nelson, a single mother and First Steps scholarship recipient.

But Nelson and 12 other Pawleys Island parents will now have to choose between work and quality care for their children after the local First Steps center, Pawleys Island Childcare, cut scholarships.

The scholarships pay $60 per week for one child. The most any parent pays is $85 per week at the center, but when families are counting every penny to pay bills and buy groceries, there isn’t any money left for child care, scholarship recipients said.

“I’m really speechless because I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Nelson said.

Those are words Georgetown County First Steps workers often hear, said Carol Daly, executive director of the nonprofit.

“We ought to put it on tape and tell them to press a button when they walk in,” she said.

“You see the hopelessness.”

After the nonprofit lost $200,000 in state funding last fall, Daly was forced to cut 21 of 130 scholarships and seven staff positions.

ABC vouchers from the state Department of Social Services that funded 102 scholarships for 3- and 4-year-olds expired last week.

Last month, the Frances P. Bunnelle Foundation contributed $25,000, and the state matched the funds.

That $50,000 will fund part-time scholarships beginning Sept. 7.

Only parents who can pay half of the cost of tuition will get scholarships, Daly said.

“Giving $140 a month to a mother who has no other source of income isn’t going to be enough for her to go back to school,” Daly said. “So what will happen? She’ll stay on unemployment.”

Knowing these problems existed in her own community, Lillian Reid, the director of Pawleys Island Childcare Center, said she couldn’t decide which children would receive scholarships this fall.

“All the children have the same needs,” she said. “I can’t pick and choose who should get the help and who shouldn’t.”

One Pawleys Island resident who could benefit from scholarships is Johnnie Mae Richardson. She got sick last winter and now has to use a walker or a wheelchair.

Her 8-year-old daughter has helped her take care of two of her grandchildren, both under the age of 3, this summer, but when the daughter starts school again, Richardson doesn’t know how she’ll care for the two. She may have to turn to one child’s great-grandmother to take care of them during the day.

She also worries about how the two toddlers will continue to learn if they can’t go to the center.

“They really teach the children there,” she said. “They’re not baby sitters.”

First Steps centers provide safe and nurturing environments for children while their parents work or go to school. They teach children social skills and the basics, such as letters, shapes and numbers, they will need to know when they enter kindergarten.

Children who are involved in centers of excellence have not needed remedial classes or needed to repeat a grade since the centers started four years ago, Daly said.

“We feel that after four years in this program, the community and state would be willing to put their faith and trust in us,” Daly said.

Nelson only has to look at her 3-year-old son to see how First Steps is getting him ready for school.

“The other day my son was teaching my 4-year-old nephew how to count to 10, and I was ready to cry because I know that I didn’t teach him that,” she said.

First Steps teachers did.

As the nonprofit prepares for another school year, they are waiting to hear about pending grant applications. The local United Way donates and Precious Blood of Christ donated $1,000, but, Daly said, she doesn’t “know what other door to knock on.”

“The staff has been feeling a little down as well. We feel we are clearly showing the community how desperately early childhood education is needed here … but I feel like I’m pushing a boulder up a hill,” she said.

The board worked hard to make ends meet after the state cutback and hopes the nonprofit’s financial situation doesn’t get worse, said Alice Young, a board member.

“Everybody is hurting so we have to work with the cutbacks the best we can and do the best we can,” she said.

For more information about sponsoring a child full time or part time at the Pawleys Island Childcare Center, call 237-4765.

Donations can be mailed to: Georgetown County First Steps, P.O. Box 531, Georgetown, SC 29442.

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