Editor's note: This is the fourth story on businesses which will be inducted into the Blair County Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame on Oct. 15 at the Blair County Convention Center.
Sometimes nonprofit organizations aren't recognized for the important role they play in the community.
That won't be the case on Oct. 15 for Child Advocates of Blair County, when it is one of five inductees into the Blair County Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame at the Blair County Convention Center.
(Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich)
Rita Brantner, an assistant teacher, helps Heaven while playing with blocks in a 3-to-5-year-old Head Start classroom at Child Advocates of Blair County, 319 Sycamore St., Altoona.
"It really is an honor to be honored in this way," said Ruthann Akers, executive director. "Sometimes social service agencies are out there providing their services without being recognized, but this is a way of saying what we do is important."
Child Advocates' board of directors was formed in 1982 to take over the Blair County Head Start program, which had been offered in the county since 1967.
"Child Advocates became its own entity. That gave us the opportunity to expand services to serve other programs directed at families and children," Akers said.
Head Start is a federally-funded program for children ages 3 through 5. Akers said early childhood education is important, particularly because the better the education provided for children, the better they will do later in school and eventually in the workplace and community.
"In this economy it is a real challenge for families. We are dealing with families who are the working poor, with two parents working and trying to raise kids. Just trying to make ends meet is a challenge for them," Akers said.
Head Start serves 462 children in Blair County with 15 satellite centers, many in elementary school buildings throughout the county.
Child Advocates plays an important role in the community, said Hall of Fame Committee Chairwoman Lisa Michelone of Reliance Bank.
"Their true care and concern for these children is evident in all that they do. And by the looks of the faces on their wonderful video [produced for the Hall of Fame dinner], you can tell that the kids are thankful as well," Michelone said.
The agency offers other programs, such as child care for infants.
In 1990, it began providing services to pregnant and parenting teens through the Teen Link Connection program, which provides case management services, parent education and services to keep at-risk teen parents enrolled in school.
In 2007, Child Advocates became one of three grantees in the county for the Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts program, which provides children in moderate-income households the opportunity to receive a high-quality preschool experience.
Akers said that was an acknowledgment that the agency was doing a good job and helped the workers to reach children who weren't income-eligible for the programs.
"We are able to reach children and families in more outlying communities in the county. The Pre-K centers are in Martinsburg and Claysburg," said Erica Peterson, planning and development coordinator.
Child Advocates also began administering the Child Care Information Services program, which currently assists 454 families with subsidies to receive affordable child care.
The agency serves more than 1,400 children through its programs with a staff of 188 people.
Many of those employees are active in the community.
"A number of our staff are on community boards and committees," Peterson said. "Outside of work we have people doing charity work. As an agency we support the Salvation Army every year. We had 25 to 30 people active in the kettle drive. We also donate to area food banks.
"For the sixth year we had a large team in the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk, and we raised over $35,000 for that."
Funding remains the biggest challenge facing the organization.
"Times are tough and Head Start is expected to do more with less. We have been pretty successful in doing that," Peterson said. "We have been able to find a way to continue these services and not lay off staff in most cases, but it is getting more and more challenging."
She added that Child Advocates will continue to seek out funding to support children and their families.
"What has been our No. 1 focus is the success of the children. We truly believe the programs we run make a difference," Peterson said. "We will continue to work with agencies and partnerships to improve and enhance our services. We will change as we must to meet the needs."
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.