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Head Start and Parent/Child Center provide a big lift with new bus service

MIDDLEBURY — The Addison County Parent/Child Center and Champlain Valley Head Start have launched a new bus service to ensure low-income parents and their kids get transportation from their homes to the child care, educational training and jobs they need in order to remain independent and self-sufficient.
It’s called the “Early Education Bus Service,” featuring two specially outfitted vehicles serving 30 children and 13 adults that are clients of the Parent/Child center and/or Head Start.
The center is a state-renowned nonprofit in Middlebury that offers child care services and training programs for young parents. Champlain Valley Head Start offers center-based and home-based early education services to more than 350 low-income families in throughout Franklin, Grand Isle, Chittenden and Addison counties.
Leaders of both organizations have been noting the transportation challenges for their young clients, many of whom can’t afford a vehicle and don’t live near a public bus stop. No transportation can mean no child care, which in turn can keep a parent out of the workforce.
“Addison County is a rural county, and we have always had a challenge with transportation,” said Donna Bailey, co-director of the Parent/Child Center. “It’s tough. Our mantra is, ‘What do people need?’ Transportation and child care, in order to be able to work. And affordable housing is another big piece.”
Together, the two nonprofits raised enough money to purchase two specially fortified buses, a 14-seater and a 20-seater, that whisk clients from their homes to five early education sites, job training and adult education locations. The buses operate Monday through Friday, providing both morning and afternoon runs. One bus serves northern Addison County, including Vergennes and Bristol. The second bus primarily serves the greater Middlebury area.
The vehicles are staffed with trained bus monitors, who make sure young children are properly seated and that their parents have access to any supplies they might need en route, according to Bailey.
Bailey praised Addison County Transit Resources for its series of bus routes that provide great service to adults and youths that would otherwise remain homebound or dependent on friends and relatives for rides. But she noted some of the Parent/Child Center and Head Start clients aren’t located within ACTR’s service area, and they require more sophisticated restraint systems than a conventional bus can deliver.
“It’s a pretty specialized population with very young children — infants and toddlers up to age five,” Bailey said. “It’s really important to be able to go house to house and door to door, as opposed to bus stop to bus stop.”
Paul Behrman, director of Champlain Valley Head Start, said the service also recognizes the new geographic realities of affordable housing.
Increasingly, families at the poverty level must move further away from town centers and child care sites due to the scarcity of nearby affordable housing. Almost 50 percent of Vermont’s rental housing tenants are “cost burdened,” meaning they spend 30 percent or more of their income on housing, according to Head Start officials. A two-bedroom unit in Addison County has an average monthly rent of $1,015 — or $12,180 a year —according to federal statistics.
The children and families served by these buses are at 100 percent of the poverty level, as defined by federal guidelines. That translates to around $24,300 per year for a family of four, according to Behrman.
Bailey said the new buses will operate within state laws stipulating that very young children can’t be on a school bus for more than 45 minutes per trip. This makes the bus a more challenging ticket for riders living in some of Addison County’s more rural communities, such as Orwell and Goshen. But Bailey said the Parent/Child Center has the resources right now to send individual vehicles to more remote addresses, or will encourage such residents to get a family member or friend to drive them to a pick-up spot that will ensure a child stays under the 45-minute transportation limit.
Officials said the buses are worth the extra expense and effort, in large part due to safety factors.
School buses serving K-12 children are traditionally the safest vehicles on the road, because they are heavy duty and  designed to withstand impact, according to Behrman. But pre-K kids are often given rides in vans that are usually not as safe as school buses, he said. The new, Early Education Bus Serviceis using the vehicles that are sturdier and safer than conventional vans.
“We are really, really excited, primarily because this is a state-of-the-art transportation system for very young children,” Behrman said. “This is part of our effort to enhance the safety of the transportation systems for very young children. We’d like to see this as a model that could be replicated throughout the state.”
It will take $75,000 to operate the new bus service next year, according to organizers, who are already seeking help through grants, private foundations and individual contributions.
“I am hopeful we will find the funding,” Bailey said. “It’s a very important service for parents and kids.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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