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Billionaire's Gift Reopens Some Head Start Programs


The government shutdown means that more than 9,000 children have been shut out of Head Start, which provides meals and preschool programs for low-income children. Last week, we heard from a regional director for Head Start in Alabama, Dora Jones. She told us she had to close programs serving 770 children in six counties.

DORA JONES: We have no funds to pay the staff. I legally had money to pay people through yesterday's work and that's it. I have no money to pay people starting 10-01. So that meant the centers had to close down. Could we tell them this a week in advance? No. Could we tell them 48 hours in advance? No.

BLOCK: Well, this week, a billionaire from Houston named John Arnold, and his wife Laura, donated $10 million to get Head Start programs open again in six states, including Alabama. And that means that Dora Jones is back in business. And she joins us again. Ms. Jones, welcome back to the program.

JONES: Thank you very much for having me back.

BLOCK: And how long were you closed, all in all?

JONES: We were closed a week. We opened our doors on Wednesday morning of this week. And first of all, let me say on behalf of my board of directors, my families, my staff and this entire community, we give our sincere thanks and praises to the Arnolds for being kind enough to open up their hearts and make this possible. It is really good to know that there are still some private citizens out there that are very compassionate about and value not only what we do but who we serve. And they decided to make a decision and make this possible, something that our voted politicians didn't do yet.

BLOCK: Well, what was it like on Wednesday when you did open your doors again?

JONES: Families were ecstatic. People were in dire need of this, so it was something they - they were just thrilled to be coming back to the center. The children were happy, parents were happy. And staff was happy to be back at work.

BLOCK: Did you tell people what it was that enabled you to be open again?

JONES: Yes, we did. And at some of our centers we had signs and banners even posted with the Arnold's names, their photograph from the website, making parents aware of how this happened. Because we want them to know that this was not a government resolve. This was something that some private citizens thought important enough and cared enough about what we were doing to make sure that these children were brought back to a safe, nurturing environment.

BLOCK: I know you were worried last week when we talked to you about the kids and whether they would be fed, whether they would be safe in the time that you were closed. What did you hear from the families about how they handled it?

JONES: We've heard a whole array of stories. Some people had to take their children out of town to live with grandparents or other relatives, especially working parents because at such short notice they didn't have prior arrangements. And one of our communities, a local church, opened its doors that they would allow these Head Start children to come in. And they had volunteer staff to at least take care of them during the day.

And I had several of my staff members to go down and volunteer, which made that transition very easy on the children. And it definitely helped them not be afraid or not be so frightened because they saw familiar faces.

BLOCK: Have you been in touch directly with the Arnolds?

JONES: Not directly, no. I know that at my local centers some of the supervisors have the children making thank you cards and making thank you notes and other drawings and paintings and writings that they intend to send to the Arnold family. And I think they would be genuinely proud that we had them back in now on the third day. We were notified Monday, they were back in the centers on Wednesday.

BLOCK: Well, Ms. Jones, all the best to you. Thanks so much for talking to us again.

JONES: Thank you so much and thank you for taking the time to even bring this story forward.

BLOCK: That's Dora Jones, director of Cheaha Regional Head Start in Alabama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.