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Woman finds education and family time through local program

By Will Atwater—Moms and toddlers sat shoulder-to-shoulder in a semicircle inside the Columbia Street Center's preschool and sang "The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round' and other children's songs.

Shayla Brown, 31, was present with her son, Xavier, 1, and daughter, Erica, 11 months. Brown and her children attend Even Start, a program that offers General Education Diploma classes to adults as well as English as a Second Language Classes, while kids attend preschool. To qualify, parents must enroll themselves and their children up to 5 years of age.
Brown, a single mother of five children, enrolled in Even Start in December and dreams of eventually attending culinary school.

"They want you to try your hardest, they want you to be determined '¦' she said recently as she sat in the living room of her east Urbana home and reflected on her experience with the program.

In order to realize her dream, Brown is working toward a high school diploma by attending classes at the Urbana Adult Education Center.  After completing the course work, she said, her next step is to attend Parkland College. Information Breakout Box

While Brown and other moms are completing assignments at the Center, their kids participate in the preschool program, which is housed in the Columbia Center School located at 1103 N. Neil St. in Champaign.

One program for parents and children is the Parent and Children Together. These activities are an important part of Even Start programming because the mission is to not only help parents achieve their individual academic goals, but also to extend this learning to the children through parents' reading to them at home. PACT activities are important because parents are exposed to different activities that they can do at home with their children.

The Champaign-Urbana Even Start program has served the local community for 16 years; Family Literacy Coordinator Debbie McDermott has guided the program since 1993.

"We serve those most in need. Even Start is a family literacy program for mothers and children who go to school together,' McDermott said.

To qualify for the program, McDermott said, an individual must meet certain mandated criteria, for which they are assigned five points for each category. The categories include being head of household, receiving public aid and living in public housing. A score of 20 to 25 points would move a person to the top of the list.

But individuals who do not meet the mandated requirements still have opportunities to participate.

"[It] doesn't mean that others can't get in, but ninety-nine percent of who we're working with are low-income people,' McDermott said.

From her office in the Urbana Adult Education building, McDermott stressed that the program is multicultural.

"Forty-five percent of parents speak Spanish, so everything we do is bilingual,' she said.

Even Start's projected budget for the 2009 fiscal year was $206,000, but to date the program has only received federal funds, which total $131,000. The state's contribution has not yet been received, McDermott said.

McDermott said that each year it becomes more challenging to fund the program. She has to stretch the funds to cover the salaries of 10 employees and other expenses related to running the program.

In addition to federal and state dollars, McDermott also relies on partnerships with local organizations. The partners include Columbia School, which provides classroom space, Champaign Unit Four School District, Urbana Adult Education, Urbana 116 School district and Head Start.

McDermott draws distinctions between partners and collaborating organizations. Partnerships, she said, involve a fee-for-service relationship.  For example, Even Start partners with the Douglass Branch Library, where monthly participants come to engage in PACT activities. These activities include use of the multipurpose room where the library's staff provides crafts and story-telling activities for the group. In exchange, the library is compensated through an Even Start program grant. 

Collaborations do not involve money but are based on in-kind services.  The Crisis Nursery is a local organization that McDermott refers parents to if they need emergency childcare, she said. McDermott said she might call on representatives from other local organizations to speak to the parents about different services that are available.

One of the program's key features is the roundtrip transportation it provides participants. While this "transportation is a big expense,' it is necessary, McDermott said.

"How would I recruit mothers if I said they'd have to stand in the rain to wait for the bus?' McDermott said. 

Even Start participants attend classes Monday through Thursday from 9:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m.  Bus service is provide by the Bus Barn, which picks up moms and toddlers and delivers them to Columbia Center School where the moms drop off the children before being bused to Urbana Adult Education for classes.

To stay eligible, both mom and child must attend classes. If a child is sick and has to stay at home, so does the mom. McDermott and the other staff stress that they will work with participants when emergency situations arise.

One way the program provides support is through Family Advocates such as Sheronda Smith, who assists Brown and other mothers with their course work and also offers moral support.

"Sheronda [tells us] to never get discouraged,' Brown said.

To keep their spirits up, Smith also sends participants cards in the mail. Smith began the practice a year ago to remind the participants that she is there for them and wants to help.

Back in her living room, Brown said she tries to surround herself with positive people in order to stay on the right track. In addition to the support she gets at Even Start, Brown also receives assistance from friends, including Lorence Meads, who Brown says helps out by taking care Xavier and Erica from time to time.

Mead said Brown has become motivated since she enrolled in the Even Start program.

Occasionally when Brown feels discouraged because of a low grade or some other issue, she knows she can count on an inspirational card from Smith to lift her spirits.

Brown's motivation can also be credited to support she receives from her son Shamario, 13, who helps her with her homework from time to time. Aside from pursuing her educational goals, Brown is committed to maintaining a close bond with her kids.

"Once a week we have family meetings just to check in with each other to make sure that things are going OK.'



By Will Atwater/For CU-Citizen Access

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.