AUGUSTA — Angela Krehbiel Vancil’s two children have benefited from Head Start, the federal early childhood intervention program for low-income families.

The mother from North Monmouth is concerned that budget cuts proposed by Gov. Paul LePage will mean that 300 children won’t be able to participate in the program in the future. That’s because enrollment would be capped, and some of the children already in the program would not be allowed to return.

Head Start now covers only 29 percent of the 3,800 children in Maine who qualify for the program.

“My daughter Amber, who is now 11, had serious developmental issues as an infant,” Vancil said during a press conference at the State House on Thursday. “She began in Head Start when she was six months old. With these early interventions, my beautiful child who didn’t talk until after she turned 3 is now flourishing.”

The federal government provides $28.5 million for Head Start each year in Maine. LePage is proposing to eliminate any state funds that go to the program. The state funding that would end under his proposal to fill a $221 million deficit in the Department of Health and Human Services totals $5.3 million over the next 18 months.

At another news conference Thursday, LePage said he simply “ran out of money” for Head Start. As governor, he said, it’s his job to keep the budget in balance.

“Before I give money to Head Start, I’m going to protect nursing homes, people with mental illness,” he said.

The threat of lost funding worries teachers at Kennedy Park Head Start in Portland, which serves 36 children ages 3 to 5. Most of their parents are recent immigrants and couldn’t afford preschool otherwise, said Kristen Tedesco, a lead teacher in the program run by Opportunity Alliance.

Many of the children are learning to speak English. For some, Head Start provides their first exposure to the language. In addition to working on basic language and math skills, Tedesco and the other teachers assess and reinforce necessary social, emotional and motor skills.

“We close the gap so they can go into public schools and be successful,” said Tedesco. “All children should have access to preschool so they stand a fighting chance to learn along with their peers.”

John Shoos, senior vice president for Community Impact with United Way of Greater Portland, said Head Start helps young children while their brains are developing. He came to the State House to participate in the press conference organized by the Maine Children’s Alliance.

“When children have enriching experiences and relationships — the building blocks of the maturing brain — children get off to a good start, establishing a strong foundation for future development,” he said. “When children don’t have these experiences, because of illness, violence, neglect or other chronic challenges that produce what is now known as toxic stress, children suffer — and so does our state.”

Vancil said the program has helped her children and helped her get the confidence to enroll at the University of Maine at Augusta, where she is seeking a bachelor’s degree.

“My hope is that funding is maintained so that others will have the same opportunity as my family,” she said. “I know firsthand that funds invested in Head Start bring life-transformational returns.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard contributed to this report.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

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