CHOPPEE — If there’s an agency that understands conquering challenges to reach a goal, it’s Head Start.
The program not only educates children, but helps build families and communities to avoid struggles in the future.
For the Choppee Head Start Center, organizers know the challenges and struggles they faced for two years to open the $1.5 million center, which has its open house at 10 a.m. Friday in the new facility, 8055 Choppee Road, Georgetown.
Sonya Guiles, center supervisor, grew up in the Choppee area and the new place for her and 19 of her full-time employees has a special meaning.
“It’s very overwhelming and exciting to know we finally have a brand new building that we can call a part of our home,” Guiles said. “When I was here, there was Choppee High and Choppee Middle, so this feels real good.”
The Head Start Center is now in its second week in the 12,000-square-foot facility. It’s already at capacity with more than 120 students filling seven classrooms from communities such as Choppee, Georgetown, Browns Ferry, Plantersville and more.
A computer lab is planned with 20 computers for the 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in the program. It also has room behind the building for a planned math and science playground.
Students are served breakfast, lunch and a snack during their 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. stay. Some are bused, while the majority of students are brought by their family members, said Wilhelmina Whitfield, director for Head Start for the area.
“To me, this is one of our greatest accomplishments by impacting the children, and families and communities,” Whitfield said. “Initially space had been a problem for housing children in Georgetown County.”
Since its inception in the 1960s, the Head Start programs nationwide would be housed in spare classrooms and churches, and locally it wasn’t much different. Children in Georgetown County were filling classrooms in the school system, and only one classroom of 17 students remains in the Andrews community.
James Pasley, executive director of the Waccamaw Economic Opportunity Council who oversees the Head Start program, said having a mostly centralized program in a brand new building built to size for children – with height-appropriate sinks and restroom facilities – is truly a gift.
“To have the opportunity to build a building from the ground up that is state of the art, that’s built child specific for Head Start, is just a wonderful opportunity,” Pasley said. He added successful partnerships with the Georgetown school system, its county council and other organizations helped make the facility happen.
“We’re tremendously excited about Waccamaw EOC working in partnership with the community,” he said.
The center had its rather public challenges for two years simply trying to get the doors open. In 2011, former board chairman Zacharius Grate told builders to begin work before the agency’s board had secured the financing to build it.
His actions were discovered after months of turmoil on the board, which was given only selective information when members needed to make decisions and led into lengthy closed-door sessions by Grate.
State officials threatened to close the agency when the board refused to comply with directives that would get it back on track, and had made plans to transfer the agency’s work to another of the state’s community action agencies. At one point, the federal Head Start office threatened to withdraw its funds from the agency because of problems on the board.
The board fired then-executive director Beth Fryar, who was one of a number of people and businesses that threatened to sue the agency. Banks began withdrawing offers because of the turmoil on the board, and eventually, the board hired Pasley to be the agency’s new executive director. It tossed Grate and former first vice president David Eagleton off the board.
For Harold Phillips, president of the EOC board, the opening brings a lot of happiness.
“My initial feeling is oh happy day, because of all the things we went through to get to this point,” Phillips said. “It really makes you feel good to see it.”
He said visitors may be surprised when they walk into the building for today’s open house.
“It’s a welcome addition to the community because it compliments the community,” Phillips said. “When people see it, they see the community is growing.”
Contact JASON M. RODRIGUEZ at 626-0301.