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Head Start Working to Serve Families in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

December 19, 2017
Steven Wagner, Acting Assistant Secretary for Children and Families

Two weeks ago I traveled to Puerto Rico to meet with leadership from every Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands Head Start and Early Head Start program. They had all been personally affected by the devastation left by Hurricane Maria, but they arrived at the meeting full of energy, fiercely determined to find creative ways to restore Head Start and Early Head Start services within their municipalities.

During our meeting, they told us their stories. In the immediate aftermath of Maria, Head Start staff had mobilized and made herculean efforts to reach every family to assess their immediate needs, finding families in their homes and in shelters. In some communities it took over two weeks to physically locate every family. Programs in many areas are still responding to ongoing requests from parents for basic needs: food, water, formula, diapers, wipes, clothing, cleaning supplies and tarps.

Across the island, the main barrier to reopen Head Start centers was power — in the week around my visit, Head Start staff had toured over 20 centers, and only two had generators and less than five had power. Centers without power or water but with undamaged or minimally damaged centers have resumed services when possible with reduced hours and cold meals. The centers that do have power and water have resumed services in a strategic way, typically delivering at least two sessions per day. All of the centers were searching for ways they could serve the largest number of children.

The stories were heard from Head Start leaders were particularly moving, because while they were reaching out, comforting families and trying to meet these families’ basic needs, they had themselves experienced devastating losses. While the total losses and major damages to Head Start centers were major concerns, their first priority was addressing the health and mental health needs of impacted families and staff.