SAL Family & Community Services (SAL), home to Skip-A-Long Child Development Services, is launching a major new initiative intended to transform the lives of low income expectant families and children until four years of age.

Skip-A-Long Wins $3.8 Million Grant to Bring Early Head Start to Illinois Quad-Cities

The parent company for Skip-A-Long childcare centers is getting a big federal grant to bring Early Head Start programs to the Illinois Quad-Cities.

Through the first and only Early Head Start Child Care Partnership Program (EHS CCP) serving the Illinois Quad-Cities, SAL continues its deep commitment to further the Q-C’s regional vision of cultivating a community that is both equitable and inclusive.

The program is made possible thanks to a new annual $3.8-million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and is the result of a bipartisan effort to increase access to early childhood education providers while also making transformative investments in children and families.

“This is a tremendous opportunity worthy of celebration for our entire community — not only is it a major investment in families, but also a chance to address poverty with real solutions,” Marcy Mendenhall, president/CEO of SAL, said this week.

“Offering this program at SAL allows us to continue to provide an unparalleled level of care to families and children, while putting education at the heart of that care.”

Earlier this month, HHS granted $100 million for EHS programs to 62 agencies in 32 states and Puerto Rico. The grants will provide Early Head Start services encompassing early learning and development, health, and family well-being to 5,100 infants and toddlers and their families.

Early Head Start programs promote the physical, cognitive, social and emotional development of infants and toddlers through safe and

Skip-A-Long Wins $3.8 Million Grant to Bring Early Head Start to Illinois Quad-Cities

Marcy Mendenhall is president/CEO of SAL Family & Community Services.

developmentally enriching caregiving. Early Head Start programs support families, including mothers, fathers, and other adults in their role as primary caregivers and teachers of their children.

Programs assist families in meeting their own personal goals and achieving self-sufficiency across a wide variety of domains such as housing stability, continued education and financial security.

It complements the federal Head Start program, which is mainly geared to kids ages 3-5. SAL does not directly provide Head Start services in the Illinois Q-C, but partners with Project NOW and the Rock Island-Milan School District for that, Mendenhall said Thursday.

The new Early Head Start Child Care Partnership Program at SAL will provide comprehensive, relationship-based services to infants and toddlers, as well as low-income pregnant mothers and their families living in Henry, Mercer, and Rock Island counties.

These services include year-round, individualized child care and early childhood services and family support — including nutritional counseling, referrals to food assistance, oral health care, mental health services, substance abuse prevention and treatment, referrals to emergency shelter or transitional housing, and home-based prenatal and postpartum services.

For the HHS grants, there were 400 applicants nationally and there were just 62 funded.

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“It was highly competitive, because of all the great work it does for infants, toddlers, twos and threes,” Mendenhall said. “It just stretches that

Skip-A-Long Wins $3.8 Million Grant to Bring Early Head Start to Illinois Quad-Cities

Illinois Congresswoman Cheri Bustos has been a champion for Early Head Start.

continuum for what does it mean to be kindergarten-ready.”

“We really did this application with the community in mind. We took into account the regional vision,” she said. “We took into account our poverty trends and really wanted to make a big impact for our children and families. We will have kiddos in our Skip sites – Moline, Rock Island and Milan.

“We will have partnerships with high-quality homes, to provide early-childhood education through our home child-care network, and we will also partner with a community agency we will put an RFP out for,” she said. That is part of the partnership as well.

“As a mother of three boys, I understand the importance of investing in our children’s education,” said Illinois Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, who has been a devoted champion for this program.

“A strong early childhood education is a key part of our children’s foundation for success in life,” she said in a release. “This Early Head Start Child Care Partnership Program will be transformative for our families in Henry, Mercer, and Rock Island counties, and I’m pleased to announce this federal investment in early education to ensure that our children have a lifetime of opportunity.”

Getting more kids ready for kindergarten

EHS CCP aims to bridge the care and education gap between pregnancy and childhood, with the goal of readying children for kindergarten socially, emotionally, and cognitively.

Skip-A-Long Wins $3.8 Million Grant to Bring Early Head Start to Illinois Quad-Cities

A child at the Davenport Skip-A-Long Center.

It’s also designed to provide families with the tools and skills they need to become successful, sufficient, and healthy members of the community. Historically, educating both families and infants during their early period of life has been overlooked — but now, as a direct result of this funding, SAL will be able to change that.

“With the launch of EHS CCP, Quad Citizens can turn to us as the leaders in modernized early childhood education, and rest assured that SAL will be able to dramatically transform our community for the better,” said Deb Brownson, chief program officer of SAL and an expert in early childhood education in the Q-C region.

“A program like this will benefit our community in so many ways; it will help us break the cycle of intergenerational poverty, for example, by allowing us to support families through quality early education that addresses critical needs early on.”

The new program will serve children under 4, pregnant mothers and their families who reside in Henry, Mercer, or Rock Island counties, and whose incomes are below the 100% federal poverty guidelines.

Skip-A-Long Wins $3.8 Million Grant to Bring Early Head Start to Illinois Quad-Cities

Staff play with kids at the Davenport Skip-A-Long Center.

The EHS program will be available at no cost to those eligible families with children who are already part of SAL’s Skip-A-Long Child Development Services (SKIP) preschool program, as well as new families.

Head Start and Early Head Start provide government funded early-childhood education, as an anti-poverty effort, Mendenhall said. “We’re looking at those families who are living and working in poverty,” she said. “We’re working with them to make sure their kids have access to early care and education.”

SAL has lesson plans for infants and toddlers, and developmental benchmarks they want the children to meet, Mendenhall said. This grant will “really radically shift how we provide care. It’s really bringing in the family and we’re working together on mental health and disabilities; working with nutrition.”

It’s aimed for their kids to reach their highest level of success, she said.

“It’s about breaking down those barriers for what may be real and perceived about gaining access to early care and education,” Mendenhall said.

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SAL – which marked its 50th anniversary in 2020 – serves about 800 children (ages six weeks to 12 years) in centers in Davenport, Moline, Rock Island and Milan, as well as through a network of 60 child care and education homes between the Q-C and Peoria, that have to meet quality standards. They will hire about 29 new employees with the new grant, Mendenhall said.

“We’re really about exploding this up to reaching up to all the parts that influence the child’s success,” she said, noting added positions will include several new managers.

To build out the program, SAL will hire new employees, promote current employees into leadership positions, provide lower teacher-to-student ratios, and give families and children access to licensed and credentialed teachers, mental health experts, nutritionists, and more.

Skip-A-Long Wins $3.8 Million Grant to Bring Early Head Start to Illinois Quad-Cities

A scene from the Moline Skip-A-Long Center.

These new capabilities will also expand SAL’s network to include partnerships with up to eight licensed child care homes and one child care center.

“We have a phenomenal staff at Skip-a-Long,” Mendenhall said. “Overall, the grant funds about 68 positions.” They plan to have new staff in place by June 30, and EHC will serve 168 children – most of whom SAL is already serving.

“What we’re doing is scaffolding more services around those kiddos,” she said. “They really are focusing on interactions. They want to have lower teacher-child ratios. We’ll do that over time; that’s part of their unique project. That’s been researched and is data-driven. They know the more intimate we can be with children, the more we help them learn and engage language, and address any problems on a smaller level, the better the life outcomes.”

During Covid, this grant is a huge celebration for the SAL team, Mendenhall said.

“Being essential workers, being there for our workforce – so that people can go to work, our staff certainly adapted and changed,” she said, noting it’s a big honor for the existing staff.

At centers, all employees wear masks and there lots of Covid protocols in place, and children have adapted well, Mendenhall said. Because people have the choice to get vaccinated, staff can but are not required to, and SAL doesn’t keep track of who is vaccinated, she said. They encourage all staff to get vaccines and offer them paid time off to do that.

While this will be the first Early Head Start in the Illinois Q-C, Community Action of Eastern Iowa operates several EHS centers in Davenport. SAL doesn’t provide EHS at its Davenport center, Mendenhall said.

EHS CCP will also allow the organization to seamlessly transition children and their families into SAL’s Skip-A-Long Child Development Services’ preschool program after their participation in the program.

“We’re so grateful that we’ll able to implement such extensive services to support everything that SAL has done over the past 50 years,” Mendenhall said. “We look forward to applying our deep understanding of this community to the needs of our youngest population.”

For more information on available services, call 309-764-3724 or visit www.salfcs.org.

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Skip-A-Long Wins $3.8 Million Grant to Bring Early Head Start to Illinois Quad-Cities
Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.