On a cold winter day in 2000, Dorothy L. Moore, Howard County Community Action Council's executive director, got a call from a Head Start teacher at the Elkridge Center telling her that they were freezing in the classrooms.
The furnace had habitual problems. Moore was used to it. But when she arrived at the classrooms and saw teachers and pupils bundled in coats, she knew something had to be done.
That day she sent the children home and closed the doors to the center, the former Elkridge Elementary School. She had no idea what she was going to do - all she knew was that the safety of the children and staff had to come first. She asked the staff to trust her and told them the situation would work out.
It did. On Sept. 30, the county's newly built Head Start center will open for classes on the Dasher Green Elementary School campus. It will become Head Start's fourth center in the county, and the first building constructed specifically for the county's federally funded preschool program.
"I never dreamed that day that we would be going into a brand-new building, with all new furnishings," Moore said.
The 9,262-square-foot building will house 108 children in six classrooms. Built on land provided by the Howard County school system, the center will be leased to the Community Action Council for $1 a year.
The new center is a partnership between the council, which is the county's Head Start grantee, and the county government and Howard County Public Schools. County officials and Head Start staff and pupils will celebrate the opening of the center tomorrow. Work on the building started earlier this year.
Yesterday, teachers and staff were busily unpacking boxes and decorating the freshly painted classrooms, full of tiny blue chairs and gray tables for the 3- and 4-year-old pupils.
"It's so cute and so pretty," said Betty King, director of Howard County's Head Start. "You can just imagine when the children get in there how much fun they're going to have."
The county's Head Start program runs 15 classes, with other classrooms at the former Harriet Tubman High School, the former Rockland Elementary School in Ellicott City and the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia. When the county-owned Elkridge Center closed, its six Head Start classes were moved to the Ellicott City school and the Columbia church.
Moore said Head Start is still seeking at least 25 more pupils to meet the program's full enrollment of 264 children. She said she is confident that the program will meet the requirement, and now the children won't have to worry about a malfunctioning heating system.
"I believe that the Lord has answered the prayers of so many people because we have been struggling with this one building at Elkridge for so long, just wondering when there will be a catastrophe," Moore said.
Moore attributes the success of the new Head Start building to County Executive James N. Robey and the County Council. All members of the council voted to provide $500,000 to help build the center.
Robey said a new building was necessary because the children were learning in "pretty intolerable conditions" at the Elkridge Center. He said if the pupils and staff kept moving to other vacant buildings, they would likely encounter similar problems, and there's too much at stake to spend time and money that way.
Teacher Lisa Esmaell-Crozier used to work at the Elkridge Center and is grateful that she no longer will have to give warm drinks to the pupils or tell them to bundle up in scarves or hats during the winter.
"It was bad," she said. "We really worked with what we had, but it just wasn't the best that we could have had."
Moore still gets emotional when she talks about the new center - she is tired of seeing poor people getting shoved aside to second-class facilities. For once, she said, they'll get the chance to be the first pupils in a brand-new facility.
"It's just wonderful that our kids will have first-class, state-of-the-art stuff," she said. "If you want children to excel, you have to provide the environment for the teachers to work and the children to learn."