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Tri-County Head Start planning new Cass County facility

CASS COUNTY — A regional educational organization has its eye on a new facility to better serve Cass County residents.

Tri-County Head Start, an organization that provides education and wrap-around services to children 0-5 years old and their families in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties to prepare the child and their family for the transition to kindergarten, is moving forward with plans to construct a new facility in Cass County. The organization is also planning on building a facility in Benton Harbor.

“We have several classrooms throughout Cass County, and last year, before the pandemic, we had a meeting where we really closely examined each of our 21 sites throughout the three counties,” said Chanda Hillman, executive director of Tri-County Head Start. “We came up with a list of priorities we really wanted to try and things we haven’t done before in our agency. We settled on a couple of top priorities, one being Benton Harbor and the other being Cass County.”

The announcement comes before Tri-County Head Start celebrates its 50th anniversary next year. Hillman said the Cass County facility would fit seven classrooms, space for parent meetings and office space for staff.

“It will have room for us to grow and continue our partnership with the state-funded [Great Start Readiness] Program,” Hillman said. “We want to make sure it’s a really warm and welcoming environment for families, and somewhere where families walk in and go, ‘Wow, I can’t believe my child gets to go here.’”

The Cass County facility is still in the early stages. As Tri-County Head Start has a classroom on Southwestern Michigan College’s campus, Hillman said it would be beneficial to build the new facility nearby. However, if the organization cannot find a close-by location, project organizers will look to Cassopolis locations.

“We are flexible on location,” Hillman said. “If it’s not near campus, then we really want it to be in Cassopolis — the heart of the county. … We want to be sure we are in a permanent location and a location that fits families’ needs.”

Though the project’s timeline is also flexible, Hillman said she hopes to see the new facility open within the next two years.

“This space will be transformational because it is going to be built with high-quality, early childhood education in mind,” Hillman said. “We want this space to honor children and really help with the learning that happens in there.”

The project would be funded through facilities grants through the federal head start office. Though Hillman said the application process is complex, she believes her staff is up for the challenge.

“We have the right team in place to go after those funds, and we all really want our facilities to match the great work that happens on the inside,” Hillman said. “We will also be working with community partners to look at funding in different ways, like donations of land and things like that. We are working through that right now.”

Despite the extensive planning and work that lays ahead of her and the rest of the Tri-County Head Start staff, Hillman said she ready to bring the dream of a new facility to life.

“I’m excited about this project and am ready to jump in and make this happen,” Hillman said. “We hope the community gets just as excited as we are. We know Cass County has some huge childcare deserts, even before the pandemic. We want to be that place where people can bring their children to set them up for school and life success.”

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