Head Start programs are beneficial to rural communities

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Head Start programs provide educational and professional care services to children from low-income families. According to a report by the Center for American Progress, in Mississippi, Head Start is especially beneficial to those who live in rural counties, such as Pearl River County.

Pearl River County is considered by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration as one of Mississippi’s many “rural” counties. Being listed as “rural” simply means that the county is not included in a “metropolitan area.”

Children in rural counties in Mississippi face a lot of obstacles early in life. The Center for American Progress’ report states that of the children younger than 5 in rural parts of Mississippi, 40 percent live in poverty. Of the children in that age group living in metropolitan areas, 28 percent live in poverty.

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“All rural counties in Mississippi are designated as a Health Service Professional Shortage area, where there is a shortage of primary care, dental or mental health providers,” the report states.

For a lot of parents in these rural areas, paying for childcare and providing health services to their children is difficult, if not impossible. This is where the Head Start program comes into play.

According to Picayune Early Head Start program director Dr. Pamela Thomas, the focus of Early Head Start is to provide family-centered services to low-income families. This includes care for children from birth through 3-years-old, as well as for qualifying pregnant women.

Thomas said the program gives parents a chance to work or go back to school so they can provide for their family, rather than staying home to take care of their children. Thomas said the program enables parents to take necessary steps to pull themselves out of poverty and provide a better life for their children.

At the same time, the program provides a plethora of services directly to children.

Early Head Start puts children in a positive environment where they can learn and socialize with other children. Thomas said Early Head Start staff are highly trained, and use research-based curriculum and assessments to ensure each student receives the best education.

Thomas said breakfast, lunch and snacks are provided each day to the children so the can have healthy, well-balanced meals at least twice a day.

Healthcare services are also available at no cost to families in the program. Children are given regular check-ups and age-appropriate vaccinations, dental and medical care. Thomas said mental health services are also provided, since some children may need emotional care. Mental health services are also available to some low-income pregnant women, such as teen mothers coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy, among others, Thomas said.

Early Head Start also includes parent training, which teaches parents how to be a positive influence in their child’s life. Parents are taught the importance of being a part of their child’s early development and education, Thomas said.

Thomas said Early Head Start provides care to 202 children across Pearl River County. There are two centers in Picayune, one in Carriere and one in Poplarville. Early Head Start also works alongside certain childcare agencies to ensure a high level of care is provided to children in the program, instead of at one of the main centers.

Thomas said that while Early Head Start’s recruitment initiative usually runs from March through April, the program takes applications all year. Acceptance will be based on availability of slots as well as personal need.