Williams County, North Dakota: Creating Community at a Head Start Center
Community Development Institute Head Start was the interim manager for the Head Start program in Williams County, North Dakota, a community that has experienced rapid change over a short number of years.
A booming oil and gas industry led to an explosion in population, rising median family income, and a corresponding drop in the child poverty rate. These trends raised the question of whether there was still a population to support Head Start in the community. CDI HS's experience on the ground told a more complex and sobering story. When CDI HS received the Williams County program in 2012, we discovered that about 30% of the population was homeless — sleeping in tents, cars, RVs, or work camps. Five out of 17 program staff members were also homeless at one point. There was a severe housing shortage, and median rental rates rose by 32% between 2009 and 2012. With a skyrocketing cost of living, some parents were forced to choose between rent and food for the month.
Williams County was also a very mobile area with a lot of insecurity. Families and children were brought to a new place in search of new opportunities, with no extended family or support system.
CDI HS' experience in Williams County began with some enormous challenges — no actual facility and no initial program staff. Recruitment activities had to take place in a public park, and the closest available storage unit was over three hours away. However, this Head Start program had tremendous support from the community, as well as within the Office of Head Start, not to mention a dedicated and passionate staff. During the time that CDI HS served as the interim manager, the program became fully staffed and completed a beautiful new building dedicated to Head Start, complete with a nature-based playground.
In Williams County, future generations now have a permanent place for children to explore and grow. CDI proudly served as a strong voice for the vulnerable in this community, making sure that people looked past the oilrigs to see the children and families who needed services.
What We Did
- Conducted a demographic study to compile anecdotal evidence from our experience on the ground along with data from the US Census, local social service agencies, homeless shelters, and area economic reports.
- Worked closely with the Office of Head Start and the Regional Office to demonstrate that there was indeed a substantial eligible population in the area to support a Head Start program, and proposed modifications to the program design to better meet the community’s needs.
- Achieved full enrollment for the program with a wait list.
- Built a sense of community to ensure that Head Start provided an enriching and welcoming environment for both children and families. Activities included weekly coffee and snacks for parents to encourage them to stay, chat and relieve stress; and a Mardi gras celebration attended by hundreds of families, friends and neighbors.
- Encouraged parent volunteerism, resulting in one formerly homeless parent becoming a full-time staff member.