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Child care center needs more volunteers, money

(ran East, South, Beach, Seminole editions)

Happy Workers Children's Center celebrated its 75th year in 2004 by starting a $3.5-million capital campaign and expanding its board of directors by three members, involving more young professionals in its leadership.

In doing so, the organization acted to ensure its continued longtime success as an early-education and child-care provider for St. Petersburg's working poor.

Nonetheless, a combination of factors put financial strains on its day-to-day operations, and in July, Happy Workers found itself on the ropes.

Happy Workers, 920 19th St. N, serves about 150 children ages 2 months to 5 years old, offering meals, education, recreation, family involvement and family literacy programs.

All but one of its clients receives some sort of subsidy, executive director Virginia Irving said. Parents pay a sliding fee based on their incomes, beginning at a minimum of $53 a week.

Last summer, Irving said, "Families were showing us that they couldn't even pay this very small fee. Clients would start their child, and then they'd say they couldn't afford it.

"We started seeing clients who couldn't afford to pay $53 a week. Parents, for the first time in our history, were saying, "I'll get back to you.'

"I think that parents are doing the best they can," she said, but more and more, they are saying, "Things are just getting too tough for us. My wife and I might have to take the children out."

The result, Irving said, is that potential clients are staying with relatives or friends of their parents who are retired or unemployed.

Often, those arrangements mean that the children are "watching television all day in a house and not having the education or instruction program that they need in order to be successful."

Happy Workers always has struggled financially, and it faced significant cutbacks in 2003, when United Way cut its contribution by about $30,000, and a $5,000 city grant for which it had applied did not come through.

The number of Happy Workers children receiving subsidies through Child Care of Pinellas, which helps disburse federal child-care scholarships, dropped from about 70 to about 48, she said.

That was a significant decrease, Irving said, and inconsistent with the 14 previous years of her 15 years with the center.

"Early educators all thought that the dollars were being channeled into the war on terrorism and Iraq and Afghanistan," Irving said. "I can't say officially that that is the case. We didn't get anything official, except that the dollars weren't there."

Parents who previously had received longer-term subsidies experienced shorter periods of help, sometimes as little as a month.

Happy Workers executives "made a very aggressive appeal plan" in 2003, asking board members and other community supporters to dig deeply so that the center could pay its bills.

Again in 2004, Irving said, "the board rallied around the needs of the center, and we were more comfortable at the end of the year."

Still, she is concerned.

"In the past, the struggle for us usually is about two months, at the end of the year. This time, it was six months."

After July came a series of hurricanes that affected the community; after that, the earthquake and tsunami in Southeast Asia.

Consistent giving to organizations such as Happy Workers has diminished, Irving said, as people react to calamities of momentous proportions.

"A lot of people are going along merrily, but there are a lot who are struggling," she said. The diversion of resources is "creating suffering and stress for us in our community."

Kenny Irby, a Happy Workers board member for eight years, described additional challenges.

"Benevolence and volunteerism are not being invigorated in the community," he said.

Board chairman Don McRae, who is in his 70s, recently stepped aside because of some health challenges.

"The volunteer base in the community is in the late to upper 60s range," said Irby, who is visual journalism group leader at the Poynter Institute, which owns the St. Petersburg Times, and pastor of Mount Olive AME Church in Rubonia. He stressed the need for 30- to 45-year-olds to take on some of the responsibilities their elders have borne.

"Not even baby boomers or 40-something folks are doing this kind of work.

"People say, "I'm working overtime. I'm working two jobs.' And I know all of that is true. But there is a huge kind of gap. How will we take care of the vulnerable in our community?"

D'Mya Ferguson grabs for a ball in June on the playground at Happy Workers Children's Center, an icon in the African-American community whose alumni include actor Angela Bassett.