MACY (AP) — Dr. Julie Prusa would have loved to invite everyone in Macy to celebrate the expansion of the Omaha Tribe’s Head Start building.
But COVID-19 got in the way, first by nixing any festivities last summer when the building was finished, and then again in the fall, when children were unable to attend Early Head Start and Head Start in person because of a spike in virus cases in the community.
The Sioux City Journal reports that children finally were allowed to attend in person beginning on Jan. 11, so Prusa and her staff organized a scaled-back celebration last week to mark the occasion. A handful of people were present recently when the building was blessed in a cedar ceremony, and again when the children were blessed as they entered the building.
“We’re all making sacrifices for the betterment of everything, to try to keep people healthy,” Prusa, executive director of Omaha Tribe Head Start/Early Head Start, said of the dashed celebration plans. “If we get that other grant, we can do it the next time.”
Yes, if the tribe secures a third grant to add on yet again to the building, there will be cause for celebration, and hopefully the coronavirus won’t be an unwelcome guest.
The first two grants provided the reason for this past week’s events. The tribe in 2018 secured a $1.5 million grant that provided for construction of the new Early Head Start facilities, enabling the program to move from a temporary location to the same site as the Head Start program. In 2019, another $1 million grant provided funding for a second addition.
Construction was finished in July, and Prusa and other staff members moved into their offices, hoping the children would soon join them. But the scheduled start of Head Start classes coincided with a COVID spike that kept the facility closed while students took part in virtual learning.
Although children now are attending in person, the program is limited to 75% capacity to allow for social distancing. Although they can’t yet operate at full capacity, it’s great to finally have both programs under one roof rather than in buildings two blocks apart, Prusa said.
“It’s so much nicer having them all in the same facility,” she said.
The larger Head Start program also is hoped to provide an economic boost to the community in a couple ways.
The most obvious is job creation. The Head Start staff has grown from 16 in 2015 to 45.
“In addition to helping children, we’re creating jobs. It’s a win-win,” Prusa said.
The growing program also could lead to other employment for tribal members. With more Early Head Start/Head Start spots available, more parents can send their children to either program, which provide a stable source of child care, a concern that often keeps mothers at home with their children when there are no other options for care.
“They’re more likely to take a job if they have a place to take their kids,” Prusa said. “It encourages more people to seek employment because they have a safe place to take their children while they’re working.”
It’s an important development for a community that struggles with poverty. More people working hopefully leads to higher incomes. And a Head Start program able to prepare an increasing number of children for school betters their odds of academic success that could someday lead to a college education and better jobs.
That potential is why Prusa is eagerly hoping for a third grant to fund another building expansion, which would likely create a few new jobs and also allow for more kids in the program.
“It’s just amazing how far we’ve come,” she said.
The thought of how far they could go is pretty amazing, too.