‘Most vulnerable children’ benefit in expanded Catawba Indian Nation program

Expecting mothers and families in need can get help thanks to an expanding Catawba Indian Nation program.

The Iswa (Catawba) Head Start Program in March was awarded a $2 million American Indian/Alaska Native Early Head Start Childcare Partnership Expansion Grant, according to the Catawba Indian Nation. The grant allows the tribe to offer Head Start services to expecting mothers and children up to 3 years old.

With the grant, the tribe will build a facility for an Early Head Start program, expected to open in August 2020. Early Head Start will have 32 slots for both children up to age 3 and pregnant women, said Melissa Harris, Head Start program director for the Catawba Indian Nation.

“When we enroll a child, we enroll a family,” Harris said.

Limited services will start in September. Free services for expecting mothers include prenatal care and assistance until the child is born. Diapers, formula and other needs are provided to children in the early program, Harris said..

Head Start, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services program, offers low-income children and families education, physical, mental, nutritional and dental heath services through community partners. The program focuses on parent involvement.

Head Start children receive a preschool education, meals and referrals for health-related services, according to the Nation.

“I love Head Start. I love the philosophy,” said Harris, whose children attended Head Start. Harris and her family live on the Catawba Indian reservation. “I know the difference it made with my own family and I see it daily within my tribal community.”

The tribe’s Head Start program currently serves children ages 3 to 5. The income and need-based program is open to 80 eligible students each year. Families must meet Head Start guidelines and apply for the program annually.

“The most vulnerable children are who we serve,” Harris said.

Head Start is open to families in need with preference given to tribal citizens, Harris said. About 60% of slots each year are filled by tribal residents.

Harris, who sits on the board for the National Indian Head Start Directors Association, spoke at a recent congressional briefing on the need for funding Head Start programs, according to a press release.

“In recent years, the Head Start program has been seeing more and more children who have been exposed to multiple adverse childhood experiences, which often lead to behavioral issues that may derail their progress in school and beyond,” Harris said in the statement.

“This funding would assist with placing more teachers in each classroom and would also provide trauma-informed care to help children who exhibit challenging behaviors get an early start back on the pathway to success,” she said.

Catawba’s Head Start for 2019-2020 is full with a waiting list, Harris said. The tribe has already received calls from interested families for Early Head Start.

“I’m thrilled at the level of advocacy, empowerment and ability to support the family that the Early Head Start program is going to allow,” Harris said. “I’m so excited we’re able to have this program here to help develop those beautiful minds at such an early age.”

Catawba’s Head Start program places an emphasis on celebrating Catawba culture and the culture of children from other parts of the world, Harris said.

“They’re learning our cultural values, our songs, our dancing. They’re proud of their culture,” she said. “It’s a beautiful thing to watch these children speak our language.”

The Catawba Indian Nation is the only federally recognized tribe in South Carolina. The tribe’s reservation sits on about 700 acres east of Rock Hill.

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Amanda Harris covers issues related to children and families in York, Chester and Lancaster County for The Herald. Amanda works with local schools, parents and community members to address important topics such as school security, mental health and the opioid epidemic. She graduated from Winthrop University.
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