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Blackfeet look to January opening of early childhood program center

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BROWNING, Mont. - Blackfeet tribal officials here are anxiously awaiting completion of a new Early Childhood Center that will house several programs operating in overcrowded conditions.

The 13,800-square-foot center, being built with the help of a $472,000 expansion grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, should be completed in January, says Liz Sherman, acting director of the reservation's Head Start program. Local fund-raising, an Indian Community Development Block grant and money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, covered the rest of the expenses.

The new building will serve as headquarters for the tribe's Early Head Start program, which serves about 60 children, the Montana Initiative for the Abatement of Mortality in Infants program and a child-care program which operates out of a mobile home. The structure will include four rooms for infant care, two rooms for toddlers, a separate area for ailing children, office space, a multi-purpose area and conference rooms, Sherman says. The center is being built by Swank Construction, based in the off-reservation town of Valier.

Early Head Start participants, who range from infants to 3 years old, are cared for in an old church building on the north side of Browning. While the facility affords adequate shelter, children are crammed into teaching and play areas, and service providers constantly improvise to meet their various needs.

Sherman says center funding was obtained largely through grant-writing skills of Dr. Dorothy Still Smoking, president of Blackfeet Community College and a founding member of the Piegan Institute, which operates three language immersion schools on the reservation.

While the main Head Start program, serving 290 children from 3 years old to kindergarten, will remain in its current quarters, Sherman says the new building will free up needed space. That will likely allow eventual expansion of tribal prenatal and parenting classes and other related services. Already, Blackfeet Head Start and Early Head Start employ about 85 people.

Head Start, which focuses on the educational and nutritional needs of low-income families, was established by Congress in 1965 and with Early Head Start serves about 1 million children nationwide.

"With the welfare situation now, it's getting a lot of people into it," Sherman says, adding that Blackfeet services, unlike other programs, have no waiting list. "The programs are doing a great job here."

Future expansion plans include building a new satellite Head Start center in East Glacier Park, about 15 miles west of Browning, she said. Satellite centers already operate in Heart Butte, Babb, Starr School, Seville and at the community college. In time, Sherman hopes to replace aging buses and build a new garage for the vehicles, as well.