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Head Start to return to Webster next year

by Janet Stoica

Thanks to Worcester Community Action Council’s foresight, along with assistance and guidance from Carol Cyr of Webster’s Office of Community Development, the former Webster Senior Center building at 116 School Street will once again be filled with the voices of school children.

Worcester Community Action council (WCAC), the federally designated anti-poverty agency for Central and Southern Worcester County, has entered into a long-term lease agreement with the Town of Webster for the building and plans to move four of its 12 Head Start classrooms from Southbridge to Webster.

The building was built many decades ago as St. Anthony’s Parochial School and the present parking lot was the original site of St. Anthony de Padua Church.

The Head Start Program will be a welcome addition for many families with pre-school children as the tried and true program has shown its strength and value by giving low-income youngsters a giant leap toward their first-grade learning and socialization skills.

“We are excited to be coming back to Webster,” said WCAC Executive Director Jill Dagilis last month at an informational meeting for town officials and involved residents at Point Breeze Restaurant. “We serve so many young Webster children who are presently being bused to the Southbridge program. Local parents are unable to get their children to the Southbridge location and this will help renew parents’ participation in the program.

“We are also delighted to take a former town building and revitalize it. This is a great location. Many parents walk their children to school and we also hope to provide transportation. As Barbara Malkas, Webster’s former School Superintendent often said, Head Start children are more prepared for learning and socialization, have better nutrition, and have developed more family life skills like health and wellness. Webster has been most welcoming for this program.”

WCAC’s Head Start Program for Webster has signed a 25-year lease with a 5-year extension. All necessary Webster department heads have signed off on approvals from the Department of Public Works to the Fire Chief to Carol Cyr.

The building’s upgrades are currently in the design stage and those designs will be going out to bid this month. Reconstruction is expected to begin in early spring with the building’s eco-friendly and “green standards” completed by the following January. The building’s plans also call for space designated for community members who are in need of fuel assistance, parenting support groups, English for speakers of other languages courses, income tax filing assistance, and a GED program.

The Webster Head Start program, however, could never have reached its ultimate aim without the generosity of several Webster families, namely Randy and Donna Becker, as well as Arthur Remillard, who each donated $200,000 to the project. The Webster Five Cents Savings Bank also stepped up with a $25,000 donation and the Janet Malser Humanities Trust offered a donation of $12,500. The project’s total cost for building reconstruction is $2.3 million. With the determination of State Rep. Joseph McKenna and State Senator Ryan Fattman, along with assistance from Congressman Jim McGovern and Governor Charlie Baker, more funding was secured. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts provided $600,000 and the federal government contributed $500,000.

Webster’s new School Superintendent, Ruthann Petruno-Goguen, stated “The good that early childhood education can provide is immeasurable. A child’s brain takes on 90% of its development from 0-5 years. Outside of the five-year window, children who do not develop language skills will fall behind in school. In this critical time frame a child develops literacy and problem-solving skills that provide for future school success. Positive engagement also helps the child to develop emotional security. Head Start gives hope to our future generations. Here’s hoping for much success; it will certainly help our school system.”

Ellen Ganley, WCAC’s development director, was happy that WCAC had the opportunity to reintroduce itself to Webster. “We presently have three- four- and five-year olds from Webster riding 45 minutes each way to Southbridge for the Head Start program. The impact we have on the children is real. Childcare is expensive and we hope to assist local families overcome adversity and get their children to thrive. Our message today is all about teamwork. Reading is everything and education is so very important.

“Research shows that well-to-do families have more resources for their kids to experience educational opportunities. People without financial resources sometimes use TV as a babysitter, but with our Head Start program about to ramp up, I want to say that I’m very happy that Head Start will be here. We will do whatever we can to get the children to our center, including providing van service for children in designated areas.”

James Alkire, owner of Point Breeze Restaurant, the site for the recent Head Start informational luncheon, affirmed his belief in the Head Start program “I’m honored to work with a group of givers. I’m very excited that we’ll have our own Head Start program. The Webster-Dudley Food Share will be providing fruit for the children in the program and it’s also important to me that Webster-Dudley Food Share will help develop the program’s nutrition program.”

Worcester Community Action Council is located at 484 Main Street, Suite 200, Worcester 01608. Phone: (508) 754-1176.