(Herald-Tribune) Children First Reopens Helen R. Payne Center

February 27, 2018

Girl playing in a playground
Girl swinging at park




When the sun finally rose over debris-filled streets the morning after Hurricane Irma hit the Suncoast, the staff at Children First, the nonprofit exclusive Head Start provider in Sarasota County, had more on their minds than their own families and homes.  They worried about the more than 600 children they serve each day. Did they have power or food? Were they scared, and would their families be burdened by the damages the storm left behind?

Facilities staff were eager to check on the 13 sites where they provide education, care, and meals to the county’s most vulnerable children each weekday. When they discovered that their Helen R. Payne Annex on Martin Luther King Jr. Way was missing a large piece of its roof, they realized they would need to find a way to relocate at least four classrooms.  Staff worked quickly to transform conference and therapy rooms at the nearby Dr. Elaine Marieb Early Learning Center and Ross Center into functional classrooms. Both sites are just blocks from the Helen R. Payne Annex, making the move convenient for families with limited transportation. Missing only one extra day of class, the children from the damaged site were able to successfully move into temporary classrooms and receive the necessary education and family support services. This was critical, as most of the families served live at or below the federal poverty guideline, and faced their own challenges following the storm.

After months of repairs and renovations to the aging building, staff from all departments at Children First worked together to move classroom equipment back into the Helen R. Payne Annex on Feb. 9, and they weren’t alone. Several volunteers from PGT Innovations lent a hand, helping move and clean classroom equipment, ensuring the site would reopen Feb. 12, when they welcomed 55 students home.

(Submitted by Melissa Conway)