By SHAUN SAVARESE
Of The Record Staff
In just a four-month window, Johnston-Lee-Harnett Community Action was able to reset itself, relocating and consolidating several services to Shawtown.
They had been paying $28,000 a month to teach 150 children in four locations across the county. The brand-new 10-classroom building opened for its 161 students, ages 2-5, on Nov. 13.
The nonprofit held a ribbon cutting Friday morning in Lillington, surrounded by employees and supporters of the program.
Johnston-Lee-Harnett Community Action (JLHCA) Executive Director E. Marie Watson spoke from the ramps of the newly-built child development center, dedicated to late Head Start and Early Head Start Director Shirley Whitley.
Head Start is one of the programs that falls under JLHCA.
“We know we have a new chapter to begin and we are going to honor Shirley by making sure this is an excellent Head Start program,” Ms. Watson said.
Ms. Watson said the 165-employee JLHCA program is growing, but is always in need of volunteers and substitute teachers.
She said JLHCA spends 20 cents in-kind for every dollar spent; $100 million a year. The program took over this Head Start from Henley Roberts in 2008, but has been facilitating Head Start services for more than 40 years, she said.
The land at the old Shawtown school has been leased for five years to the program from Harnett County.
She thanked partners of the program, JLHCA Housing Director Glenn Avery, the Town of Lillington and county commissioners.
“This is for our children,” Ms. Watson said. “It is for our children, to make sure that when they get into the public school system — the parents, the children — they know how to really operate and won’t have any problems with it.”
Head Start Area Manager for Harnett County Vania McNeill welcomed and thanked the more than 30 onlookers.
“On behalf of our executive director, Head Start director, board members and staff, we would like to thank you for your attendance today,” she said. “Our goal is to promote and strive for the development of children and we would like to thank the community and our county representatives for helping us proceed to this point.”
Johnston-Lee-Harnett Community Action Board Chairman Robert W. Atkinson spoke on behalf of the Johnston-Lee-Harnett Community Action Board and Harnett County Board of Commissioners Chairman Gordon Springle spoke on behalf of the county.
Mr. Atkinson conveyed his “sincere gratitude” for their support in memorializing the building complex with its name. “I encourage you to spread the word throughout this county, state … this region, among your friends and neighbors about this exciting initiative and what we are doing to enhance the education of our children here in Lillington. The legacy of Shirley Whitley will last. As the quality of our children moves throughout this facility, they are empowered with an outstanding quality of education that we shall never forget … because Shirley lived. And dedicated her life to our children being competitive educationally.”
Chairman Springle said he met Ms. Whitley over four years ago, when he served on the board.
“Every time she talked it was all about children,” he said. “I think this is wonderful thing that you could have this child development center named after her, and honor her. On behalf of the county, we thank you for this facility. This is extremely important to the citizens of this county, in having these children get this training and early training. I don’t think people realize how important it is for these children to move up as they go to school to be prepared and this gives us an opportunity to do that.”
Ms. Whitley’s sisters, Hilda Morgan Creech of Benson and Rhonda Mooneyham of Clayton, were in attendance.
Ms. Mooneyham called the day a “great tribute” to her sister.
“It just proves all that she worked so many years to accomplish,” Ms. Mooneyham said. “It’s such a great tribute to her … She wouldn’t think she deserved it. That’s the kind of person she was. It was never about her. …The big point of the day for me was that the kids were outside playing and laughing and that would make her smile.”
Mr. Springle’s fellow board member and Harnett JLHCA Board Representative Barbara McKoy said there was a lot of discussion about these facilities, “but everybody got on board.”
“This is the most important time in the children’s lives, to develop their brains to learn,” Ms. McKoy said of the Head Start program.
“Learning will take them to a part of their lives when they become productive citizens in Harnett County.”
Ms. McNeill, the Harnett County Head Start area manager, said the facilities are “wonderful” and “very spacious.
“Its going very, very well,” she added. “The staff are very happy to be located once again under one roof. It makes supervision for the students and staff very easy … The location is a wonderful place for the county. We serve the western part of the county; Cameron, Broadway, Spring Lake, Bunnlevel, Erwin and Angier, so it allows ease of accessibility for those areas.”