Moline’s Esperanza Center has been closed since before COVID, and it finally will reopen to help address the region’s child-care shortage.

Instead of as a day care for infants and toddlers, as it was since 2016, the building at 335 5th Ave., will become a new Head Start center under Project NOW, serving 50 children.

Andrea Flannery, Head Start director for Project NOW, gets emotional talking about the program at Moline’s Esperanza Center on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023 (photos by Jonathan Turner).

Head Start services are provided through two options: center-based and home-based in three counties: Rock Island, Henry, and Mercer. Head Start is provided at no cost to income eligible families with children 3-5 years old, including children with disabilities or other special needs.

After being closed since before COVID, the Esperanza Center in Moline’s Hispanic Floreciente neighborhood will open its doors to preschoolers this fall. Head Start director Andrea Flannery is thrilled the center will be filled with students.

“The Floreciente community has always embraced Project NOW’s Head Start,” she said Friday, noting there’s an existing Head Start center across the street, serving 40 students, owned by Project NOW. Head Start has a waitlist of families in East Moline, and had one in Moline (which is why they are opening the new center), Flannery said.

“If I had another building to put 40 more children in, I could fill it by next week,” she said. “It’s really frustrating for them when they call, since they can’t get into the program.”

There also is a need in the Rock Island-Milan School District, since Head Start doesn’t have a center in Rock Island, they can’t serve those eligible families, Flannery said. “My hands are tied – if you have a Rock Island address, I really can’t help you. There are a lot of children in this area who aren’t getting the early childhood education services that they need.”

Andrea Flannery speaking at the new Head Start, 335 5th Ave., Moline.

“We have a long and rich history partnering with this community to enhance lives. We want to be that support in the city of Moline for these underserved neighborhoods,” she said. “We want to share in their progress, success, and growth in our shared community, and that starts with serving some of the youngest, and turning them into Head Start kids.”

Flannery said she is preparing to provide transportation for students enrolled at this site, which may allow Head Start to service more children in East Moline—also an area she says is underserved.

A community celebration

Rev. Dwight Ford, executive director of Project NOW, led Friday’s morning celebration of the new center opening with Head Start staff, Moline elected officials, and city staff.

Project NOW executive director Rev. Dwight Ford, Friday, Aug. 18, 2023.

“Today is a good day for the city of Moline and it’s a great day for the children and families of the city of Moline,” he said.

A Head Start graduate himself, he said his mother taught Head Start for 30 years. The former Ericsson School closed in 2016, and Heritage Church bought it, transforming into the Esperanza Center. Project NOW has been using the building for Head Start for two years, preparing to welcome 50 new students, primarily ages 3-5.

“Our children really do matter – they’re not the future, they’re actually the present,” Ford said. “They deserve the best opportunity we can give them.”

Head Start provides valuable education to pre-K students so their parents can work outside the home and support their family, he said.

Moline Mayor Sangeetha Rayapati

Moline Mayor Sangeetha Rayapati said $50,000 in city funding for the Esperanza Center came from $500,000 in federal ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) dollars, approved by the city for early childhood education. Across Moline, the city has helped create 272 new child-care slots at centers.

“This is huge,” she said. “This particular child care was closed down because of the pandemic, so what better place to spend some of our ARPA dollars?”

“We can’t say that we care about workforce development if we don’t make it easier for families to get to work, or for individuals to get to work,” she said. “And we can’t say we care about education if we don’t give children the right start in life.”

“I am so, so thankful to so many people who helped make this possible,” Rayapati said, mentioning Congress, Moline aldermen, city staff and Head Start teachers and administrators.

“We know that we need more workers in that pipeline,” she said. “This feels like a culmination of this project.”

Director for 18 months

Flannery was hired as Project NOW’s new Head Start director in February 2022, after working many years in child care for the Rock Island Arsenal.

Head Start not only serves kids ages 3-5, but children who are homeless, in foster care, who have special needs or have an independent education plan (IEP) through their home school district. Black Hawk Special Education Center is one of Head Start’s partners, Flannery said.

Flannery started her job overseeing Head Start in three counties in February 2022.

What makes Head Start unique is, when they enroll a child, they enroll the whole family, and serve the family’s needs – including housing, food, money and employment, she said.

“We know if a family is concerned about where their next meal is coming from or if their lights are going to be turned off, how do we expect them to provide support for their children?” Flannery said. “We have to be able to help them with their basic needs first.”

Head Start family service workers focus on those needs, and work with families in Rock Island, Henry and Mercer counties.

They have partnered the past two years with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to get the Moline site licensed for Head Start, including interior renovations.

A group photo of representatives of Head Start, the city of Moline, and Project NOW.

Flannery thanked Rev. Ford for his unwavering support, Heritage Church for their patience in the process, and the city for funding. Head Start has done staff training in the building and had a literacy event, where they gave out hundreds of free bilingual books, and a Colgate bus from Chicago that gave free dental screenings for 80 kids.

“A new perspective”

Flannery said Friday the work she does is very meaningful for her.

“It’s given me a new perspective on the world; it’s given me a kinder, more empathetic heart, and it makes me a better person every day,” she said.

DCFS changed their rules for opening a new Head Start facility, and requires they have all staff on board before opening, Flannery said. The city funds went to hiring staff, training, equipment, bilingual materials, and fixing the outdoor playground (including removing old equipment).

One of the new Head Start rooms at Esperanza Center, Moline.

The former child-care center there was for up to age 3, and proposed to convert to Head Start in 2021.

“One of the challenges we had here, there was lead in the water,” Flannery said. “We had to mitigate that.”

“Other challenges were how the classrooms were constructed,” she said. The Esperanza Head Start staff includes three new hires, and other teachers who worked at other locations. The current total is six teachers and a site supervisor.

Flannery is waiting for final paperwork to be approved before scheduling a ribbon-cutting event and first day to welcome students, she said, noting DCFS is short-staffed and they have a new representative for Head Start.

To apply for child care or employment through Head Start, visit the Project NOW website HERE.