Bridgehampton Head Start Struggles

For program that serves neediest, fund-raising is persistent stumbling block
Harriet Daniels, a teacher at Bridgehampton Head Start, worked with a handful of students during center time earlier this week. Morgan McGivern

       On Mondays, the children come hungry.

       Harriet Daniels, a teacher at Bridgehampton Head Start, said it was not uncommon for her students to inhale their breakfasts, particularly at the start of the week.

       Early Monday, more than a dozen 3 to 5-year-olds devoured whole-grain rolls with cream cheese accompanied by slices of apple.

       “It’s typical that they eat more on a Monday. They’re hungrier than, say, on a Wednesday,” said Ms. Daniels. “They always want seconds. If they want more, there’s always more. We never say no.”

       The Head Start program provides preschool and early-intervention services to 52 of the South Fork’s neediest families, with dozens more on a waiting list. Each family lives at or below the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that translates into a 2014 income of $23,850 a year, according to Health and Human Services Department guidelines. 

       Last month’s federal budget allocated Head Start programs nationwide $8.6 billion, but each parent organization must provide a 20-percent cash or in-kind match. Long Island Head Start is the parent organization of Bridgehampton Head Start, which is one of the network’s 22 agencies. Each year, Long Island Head Start, which provides services for 2,000 Suffolk County children, must raise $3.8 million. Its total grant is $19 million.

       The Bridgehampton location has two classes of 18 children each. A third class meets across the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike at the Children’s Museum of the East End. For the two locations, which together serve 52 children, the agency needs to come up with $37,700 annually, or the equivalent in in-kind matches.

       Though they are only minutes away from grand Sagaponack estates, fund-raising has proven a persistent stumbling block. Last year, Bridgehampton Head Start came up more than $10,000 short.

       “If we can’t meet our match, there are direct consequences,” said Carol Burnett, its community outreach and recruitment coordinator, who has worked for  Patchogue-based Long Island Head Start for the past 18 years. “Programs could be cut. Children could be let go. The need is great.”

       She considers Head Start to be a great equalizer, a program that works to even the playing field for poor children before they begin kindergarten with their luckier peers.

       Home visits, which occur periodically through the school year, are a constant reminder of how dire the need is. Ms. Burnett said it was not uncommon to see families of four or five crowded into one bedroom. She and other staff members often come across exposed electrical wires and residences lacking working stoves and refrigerators.

        “All parents want what’s best for their children, whether they have money or don’t have money,” said Ms. Burnett, who is constantly on the lookout for  volunteers willing to donate their time to read a book aloud or help assemble an art project. She sees such contact with the greater community as a vital part of the children’s social development.

       But support has proven elusive.

       “You wouldn’t think this is happening on the East End. I want people to be aware that poverty exists in their own backyard,” said Ms. Burnett. “You don’t have to look outside the Hamptons. It’s right here, and the question is, what are we going to do about it?”

       Head Start began in 1965 as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. What began as an eight-week summer program to prepare children for kindergarten now serves nearly 1 million toddlers and preschoolers between the ages of 3 and 5. In recent years, while universal pre-K for 4-year-olds has gained in popularity — with mounting evidence that early-intervention programs are of particular benefit to low-income children — Head Start remains the federal government’s only pre-K program.

       Later this year, a 48th-anniversary party will be held in Bay Shore, on May 28. In addition to financial contributions and scholarships, Long Island Head Start is seeking donations that can be raffled off to help meet the 20-percent in-kind match.

       Local families are also said to be in need of basic supplies, everything from diapers to shampoo and laundry detergent to canned goods. Ms. Burnett said she would be happy to supply a detailed list of needed items.

       Maggie Sweeney, a teacher who is in her sixth year at Bridgehampton Head Start, said that despite frequent home visits, poverty can be cleverly disguised. She estimated that about half of her 16 students do not have warm coats. In her class, 15 of the 16 children are Latino. One lives in Southampton and the rest in Springs.

       Since transportation is not provided, parents drop their children off at 9 a.m., Monday through Friday. Pickup is at 3:30 every afternoon. During the day, children are given breakfast, lunch, and a snack.

       On Monday, Juan Viteri dropped off Liam, his 5-year-old son. Mr. Viteri works as a landscaper; his wife cleans houses. The family recently relocated from East Hampton to Springs, where they share a three-bedroom house with two other families, together paying $3,000 a month in rent.

       Come summertime, when Head Start is closed and when Mr. Viteri and his wife each work 13-hour days, they struggle to ensure that Liam gets care and attention. From September to June, when the program kicks in, they can put that worry aside.

       “I love it. I save money, and he looks forward to it,” said Mr. Viteri, a native of Ecuador, with the assistance of a translator. This time of year, before paid work again becomes plentiful, is always hard, he said. “It’s hard to pay rent, pay car insurance, pay for food. But I do the best I can.”

       By lunchtime Friday, with the weekend fast approaching, anxiety starts building in the classrooms, with some children fearful of losing their predictable meals and snacks.

       “Can I save this for my mom?” Ms. Daniels recalled a child asking her  recently as she clutched a package of crackers.

       On Friday afternoons, just before dismissal, the cook will box up perishable items such as containers of milk and bread that would otherwise go bad over the weekend. When parents come to pick up their children, they are encouraged to take the supplies home.

       “I try to calm their anxieties the best I can,” said Ms. Daniels. “At least here, they know there will always be meals.”