Deep cuts

Loss of funding, change in rules could close Birth to Three center

Darcy Barton, teaching assistant, left, spends time with Cameron Fields at center run by the Birth to Three Program.

Photo by Leslie Karnowski

Darcy Barton, teaching assistant, left, spends time with Cameron Fields at center run by the Birth to Three Program.

Sometimes fundraisers just aren’t enough for a non-profit to make it.

That’s the case with the Birth to Three Program based on Ellis Avenue in Maryville.

On Nov. 11, the state notified Birth to Three executive director Pam Potocik that their $212,000 budget would be slashed by $50,000, and that the remaining dollars provided by the state, 65 percent of their budget, could only be used for home-based care.

That has left the director and the four part-time employees who serve 36 children at the facility scrambling.

“You just can’t sell enough T-shirts, cupcakes and homemade play dough to make a budget,” she said of recent fundraisers for the program.

The Birth to Three Program is an early intervention educational program for infants and toddlers with developmental delays, and their families, which is also under the umbrella of Little Tennessee Valley Educational Cooperative. By federal law, the program is offered free of charge to the children who need the services.

Lead teacher Christie Bales said that under the new regulations, the center could become a vendor for the state but would only get $8 per hour per child, which is a fraction of what they need.

Potocik said the cuts go into effect Jan. 1, 2011. “It is pretty much immediate,” she said. “To finish our school year, we probably need $55,000.”

Potocik said that while they could maintain current services and survive for a few months on savings, the money would be gone by March of 2011. They would then have to close the center and go to all home-based services.

Potocik said that for parents of children with disabilities and special needs, the Birth to Three Program day care center is vital.

Bales said the program is a blessing to parents because Birth to Three helps them navigate the challenges that come with a life-long journey of having a special needs child. “For parents just finding out their child has been diagnosed with a developmental delay, it’s world-changing,” she said.

Potocik said the center is an important part of the Birth to Three Program because it gives parents of special needs children a safe place to bring their child where people love them and know how to work with them. “You need to know someone is going to love your child and is trained to know how to take care of them,” she said.

Potocik said much of the therapy and work they do with the children helps the youngsters feel comfortable in their own skin so that they can acclimate to a classroom with students without special needs. “The physical environment and emotional climate together create the favorable environment for children to grow and blossom,” she said.

Beginning in the spring of 1981, Birth to Three was funded by a Children Early Education Program grant for the handicapped. It was a three-year grant to determine the best way to get services to infants and toddlers in rural areas. The program served Blount, Monroe and Loudon counties.

“At the end of three years (in 1984), we knew federal funding was ending, and the United Way of Blount County stepped up to keep the program going,” Potocik said.

Potocik said the State Department of Mental Retardation, now known as the Division of Intellectual Disabilities, also helped fund the program. For 10 years, they had space at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church at Old Niles Ferry Road and U.S. 411 South before the Blount County Commission helped locate their current space at 422 Ellis Ave., in the spring of 1992.

“I can not tell you how many children we’ve worked with - hundreds of infants and toddlers who had special needs,” Potocik said. “If you are eligible, you probably have a child with a medical diagnosis associated with a developmental delay such as cerebral palsy, downs syndrome or spina bifida.”

Potocik said the state’s definition of a delay is a 40 percent delay in an area of development or 25 percent delay in 2 or more areas. The areas can be cognitive, communications, physical development, adaptive skills and social skills, she said.

Potocik said for children who fit into Tennessee’s definition of a delay, 2 percent of children under 3 have a medical diagnosis or a measurable delay. Statistically that means more than 100 children in Blount County would need services provided by the Birth to Three Program.

Potocik said Blount County currently has 63 children actively receiving services county-wide. “As funding goes down, there is less time spent identifying those with delays. Statistically, there could be well over 100 who need to be served, and we have not found them all,” she said.

Potocik said serving children with these types of disabilities requires a great deal of hands-on care. “It takes a lot of undivided attention to work with children under age 3 with developmental delays. We’ve kept a (ratio) of four adults to six children,” she said. “We have therapists providing therapy in class three days a week,” she said.

Potocik said 36 children are served at the center and four others get home-based services only. “The other 26 are getting services from another homebound therapist, or the state is paying for them to get speech therapy,” she said. “You have to have teachers in the classroom and therapists in the classroom and therapists who make home visits. The goal is to have each child maximize their potential and see that the parents have the information they need to parent their children. Most people want a center-based program with a home-based component. We think it is good to do both.”

Potocik said that the Birth to Three Program began incorporating children without special needs into the program in 1997. “We started bringing in children without disabilities. Sometimes we have children who are siblings of children with disabilities or who may be high risk to develop a disability. We wanted a program that was inclusive, where children with and without disabilities played together,” she said. Today, they maintain approximately a 50/50 ratio of children who have disabilities with children who do not at the center.

“We started adding the children who are not delayed a little at a time,” said Potocik. “The whole concept is that we try to have a balance. Some of the children who are in the center who are not developmentally delayed may be at high risk, so it is a good place for them to be, too. Right now we don’t charge any of the children, although we do ask all parents to contribute something to the program -- whether it is a box of crackers or whatever they can give. We will probably be changing to a fee-based program for children who are not developmentally delayed if we can keep the center open, but that is not in place currently.”

Potocik said another benefit of having a center-based program is that is gives parents of special needs children somewhere to take them that is safe. “Now folks can come spend time with other families or get some free time because often when you have a special needs children, there is no respite,” she said.

The director said Birth to Three is more than a daycare. “It is therapeutic, educational play,” she said. “We’re looking at children with special needs who will just be left somewhere. They won’t be engaged in learning activities on a regular basis.”

The program executive director said that Birth to Three began to see the effects of the tight state budget in February when the state notified her that Birth to Three needed to start serving 60 percent more children, but with no increase in funding.

Then, on Nov. 17, the State Department of Education was asked by Finance and Administration to cut $1 million from the Tennessee Early Intervention System Budget. “When they realized they had to cut $1 million, they made some hard decisions and cut across the state at various levels,” Potocik said. “We had a 41 percent cut in our budget -- which is the $50,000. Then they said that the remaining dollars could only be spent on home-based services. That was the rub.”

The program executive director said this was the first time she had seen the state cut her budget in this way. “I’ve never had a cut where they told us to change our program model and simply do home-based services,” Potocik said.

“We’re trying to cut costs as much as possible because there won’t be money to operate at the center. Any savings we have, we are going to stretch it,” she said. “To keep things as they are, we could stretch it to March. After that, we won’t have a center.”

In addition to the state funding, which was $137,000 (65 percent) of their budget, Birth to Three receives money from United Way and through their own fundraisers. Last year, United Way gave the program $62,600, she said.

“Even if we just lost the $50,000, it is the stipulation of only being able to spend the rest on home-based efforts that is killing us. Any funding we need for the center would have to come from our emergency funds,” she said.

The program executive director said she understands the sluggish economy has created a tight budget for everyone on the state level. “I realize everyone is going through cuts. It’s a very hard time, but the children who participate in this program are making significant gains.”

Potocik said there is a pay off for investing in programs like Birth to Three. “For every dollar spent on early intervention, there is a cost-savings of between $9 to $17 in future services.”

Potocik said serving people in the age-range from birth to age 3 is important. “The brain triples in size in the first three years. It is a very critical time for learning. It can make a difference in how they learn social skills, follow directions, fit in with peers and in classrooms,” she said. “Teachers tell us they can always tell children who came from Birth to Three because they don’t start crying, they follow directions, take turns, and they are ready to learn.”

Sandra Hoyos, who works at the center part time and is the mother of an autistic son, credited the Birth to Three program for giving him a good start. “My son is fully functional in the classroom,” she said. “I attribute it to the early intervention program.”

Potocik said that often individuals will donate supplies to Birth to Three to help defray operating expenses, and the staff appreciates those donations.

“It really comes down to money at this point. Our people donate things like supplies, and they help do anything, but there comes a time we need sustainable funding to pay staff,” she said. “Eighty-nine percent of our budget is personnel.”

Potocik said folks concerned about the cuts should contact the state or lawmakers about the situation. “I understand the State of Tennessee will have to cut $1 billion to $2 billion out of the next budget. It is important to let them know we value our young children. What kind of community do we want to live in? We want our children to achieve nothing less than excellence,” she said.

If funds can not be found to run the center, Birth to Three would still serve children with special needs. “We will not stop serving children. We’ll just have to see them at home,” she said. “A lot of the families say it would not be the same.”

Currently the center at 422 Ellis Ave., is open Monday through Friday. Mondays two groups of children are at the facility from 9 to 11 a.m. and then from 12 to 2 p.m.

Tuesday through Friday children are at the facility from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Afternoons are used for home visits, Potocik said.

Bales said Birth to Three has always maintained a high quality of care, even with a barebones staff. “I know it sounds cheesy, but we are the best kept secret in Blount County. It is tearing me up. We are looking for short-term solutions, but we’ll have long-term problems because of this approach,” she said of possibly closing the center. “We’ll do our best to serve families at home.”

Without the center-based program, Potocik said families with special needs children will not have a place outside the home to come meet with others dealing with similar circumstances.

“In one location, you have people with different backgrounds coming together to develop the best program. We also have students come here from high schools, Maryville College and the University of Tennessee,” she said. “We’ve been here 30 years. Once the doors are shut, it is a lot harder to get them back open.”

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