When asked what motivates her to pursue a life of service, Wanda Harris, the new director of the E.E. Butler Head Start Center, mentioned one person again and again: her grandmother.
“My grandmother was everything to me,” who told Harris when she was a young girl that her calling was serving others.
“My grandmother was a cleaning lady and she put a word on me and she always used to say, ‘You’ll always have friends.’”
Harris tries to embody her grandmother’s word each morning as she stands outside to greet each person who walks through the door.
When Harris walked into the center for the first time in May, she knew she was standing on top of a “gold mine,” she said, even if it seemed like she was “standing at the bottom of a volcano.”
Monica Grimes, family engagement program specialist, said the center has around 70 vacancies, each representing a “missed opportunity” for families and children who would otherwise benefit from its services.
The E.E. Butler center is the only Head Start center in Hall County, though it acts as the headquarters for six off-site locations at local elementary schools, including Myers, Sugar Hill, McEver, Lanier, Lula and Flowery Branch. The center is capable of serving 197 children and 174 at its off-site locations.
“Our primary goal is to make sure that our slots are being filled by the children who need this program the most,” Grimes said. “Each day that goes by where we are not at our funded enrollment is a missed opportunity for a child to receive all of the amazing benefits of our program, like the nutritious meals and the socialization and the high quality of education that they receive in our program … which is why it’s so important that we increase community awareness of this center and the work that it does.”
The coronavirus pandemic is in part responsible for the high number of vacancies, she said, adding that the center complies with CDC guidelines, requires mask-wearing for those who are unvaccinated, performs temperature screenings and has a state-of-the-art machine used to disinfect toys and other objects.
As the new director, one of Harris’ main goals is “bringing a totally different awareness and cohesiveness to the community here,” she said.
“A lot of the community come(s) here, and a lot still don't know exactly where we are and what we're doing,” she said. “And it's so important that they understand that we are here, and most of all, that we are an accepting environment.”
Head Start is a federally funded program that provides free pre-school child care services to low-income families, with a particular focus on preparing children to enter kindergarten. Families experiencing homelessness are also eligible, as are children in foster care and children with disabilities or other special needs. Children receive health screenings and nutritious meals, and families are paired with medical, dental and mental health services.
The center’s teachers are “highly trained” in the field of early childhood education, Grimes said, and “provide a very high level of interaction with the children throughout the day.”
Before becoming the new director of E.E. Butler Head Start, Harris served for more than 16 years as the director of child care for the Young Women’s Christian Association in Asheville, North Carolina, an organization that aims to empower young women and advance women’s rights.
She earned a master’s degree in education from Strayer University and a bachelor’s in urban studies and community affairs from Johnson C. Smith University, and is also certified in early childhood care and career facilitation from Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. Earlier in her career, she served as an education minister in a Ukranian church.
“If I can help somebody, my life won’t be in vain,” she said. “That’s how I live my life each and every day.”