Help is a two-way street.

The American Rescue Plan (ARP) passed by the U.S. Congress in March 2021 represents an all-government effort to reduce the worst educational, health, and economic effects of COVID-19. Head Start programs can play a critical role in informing ARP spending decisions at the community level and connecting families to support. This is one program’s story of developing a process to connect families to ARP-funded supports.

In Berks County, PA, Family Engagement Supervisor Kathryn Cobb-Holmes witnessed the profound loss suffered by Head Start-eligible families throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Some families lost a lot of family members — two or three.”

As families made arrangements to lay their loved ones to rest, Kathryn and her colleague Kemmy Francis with Berks County Head Start stood up a local partnership to support funeral costs for families. They connected affected families to a local funeral director offering financial support provided through the vast American Rescue Plan (ARP).

Their efforts extended well beyond connecting families to burial assistance. Berks County Head Start navigated families to pandemic-related food programs (Pandemic-EBT), extra WIC funding to support infant nutrition, housing supports, and most recently, the expanded Child Tax Credit.

The team compiled agency-level information into an accessible document for families, simplifying detailed information on how to apply for various expanded benefits, including Pandemic-EBT and SNAP, into an actionable to-do list.

This resource summarized the benefits, and made it easy to understand whether they qualified, how much time it would take them to apply, how to apply online or in-person, and other useful information to empower parents.

Pandemic-EBT information collected by Berks County Head Start

They disseminated the information across multiple agency platforms to reach as many staff and families a possible.

Dissemination strategies used by Berks County Head Start

To guide the work, Kathryn worked with her team of 11 to engage local community agencies on ARP funding and educate them about the needs of Head Start families. Some of the agencies she contacted had not decided how to use their ARP funding. Many were trying to wrap their arms around and understand needs.

“They would ask us: ‘Have you seen more evictions? People moving across town?’” recalled Kemmy, who acted as a liaison between parents and agencies.

Collaborative conversations with caregivers and parents helped the Berks County team to surface and respond to different family preferences.

“Help is a two-way street. The families have to tell us they need the help in order for us to provide it,” said Kemmy.

The work to connect families to support is ongoing. Many community agencies still have not decided how to spend funding. A few months into the process, Berks County leaders now have advice for programs taking on this intensive ARP-benefits work.

“You can’t expect a finished document. It is not going to be a beautiful brochure,” said Ann Kowalski, Assistant Program Administrator for Family Services.

Even though the work can be messy, the benefit to the program and staff is clear.

“It was almost a re-birth to start reconnecting with these agencies,” said Kowalksi. “It taught us the value of connection.”

The benefit to families from new supports has been significant. And a long-term opportunity exists to support families given ongoing delays in COVID-fund distribution.

Key Takeaways on Expanding Connection to ARP Resources

“People are taking advantage of it [ARP benefits] because they need it,” said Cobb- Holmes. “This way they can seamlessly get back to work and have a little bit in their pocket. They are grateful for that.”

For the complete slide deck of the Berks County process, see here.

To connect with Berks County, please contact Kathryn Cobb-Holmes at katcob@berksiu.org.

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National Head Start Association

NHSA is a nonprofit organization committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in life.