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Step Forward reopens Louis Stokes Early Learning Center

Ten months after a devastating flood, Step Forward’s Louis Stokes Early Learning Center reopened to children and families.

Dozens of people lined up on the morning of October 11, 2023 to get inside. At 8:00 a.m., Nicole Hawthorne, Site Administrator at Louis Stokes Early Learning Center, had the honor of opening the front doors for the first time. Children filed inside, happy to return to a newly renovated Head Start center.

A young girl sits in her new classroom

“The holiday season of 2022 brought unexpected challenges to the Step Forward community, particularly to the Louis Stokes Early Learning Center,” George Phillips-Olivier, Step Forward’s Director of Support Services, acknowledged. “On December 24th, as families were gathering to celebrate the season, a pipe burst and led to a devastating flood inside. The freezing cold exacerbated the situation, causing water to pour out of the front and side doors.”

Phillips-Olivier was one of the many individuals who responded when they got word of the flood. He described walking inside the flooded site, it being dark, damp, foggy, and alarms blaring. The staff within Step Forward’s Facilities department immediately sprang into action, but the sight that met them was daunting. They waded through almost knee-high water, working to address the situation. The crew had to shut off the water and the heat. The initial devastation was heart wrenching, but Step Forward was determined to turn this setback into a comeback.

“We wanted to hold on to our families and make sure they were being served, so we started a bus route to other centers so that our children could attend a school somewhere,” Dr. Thea Wilson, Step Forward’s Vice President of Children and Families, explained.

To make it worse, Step Forward had just closed its Green Road Early Learning Center less than a month prior. The agency had planned to move all of the enrolled students at Green Road to Louis Stokes. Now, those young children would be displaced again.

The first day of the new bus route was undoubtedly a challenging experience for both children and parents alike. For many of the young learners, it was their first time every being on a bus without their parents by their side. The separation anxiety was palpable as they tearfully said their goodbyes and hesitantly boarded the bus, bound for a new Head Start site with unfamiliar faces. However, as children often do, they displayed an incredible capacity to adapt. After just a few mornings of the new routine, their tears began to subside, their smiles were bright, and they displayed a growing excitement about loading the bus with their friends. The parents demonstrated a continued commitment to their children’s early education by waking up early and ensuring their little ones made it onto the bus on time.

“It was a testament to the resilience and determination of the Step Forward community to ensure that early education remained a top priority,” Dr. Wilson said.

Inside Louis Stokes, crews started the rehabilitation by drying out the facility. Crews cut portions of the drywall and placed dehumidifiers in 14 classrooms. They also installed flood remediation tubes throughout the building. They used desiccant technology to aid in the process.

Rehabilitation crews dry out Louis Stokes

“We had a couple months’ worth of drying out the building,” Phillips-Olivier recalled. “All the tile in the hall that had been wet for days started popping up off of the floor. We went from having 40 percent of tiles needing to be replaced to losing 90 percent of flooring. We lost all of the educational rugs because by day five, mold had started growing on them. We tossed all of them out. We looked at the furniture and a lot of it was moldy, so we had to discard all of it. We certainly did not want to take a chance on mold spores being in there. All of that added another couple of months to the restoration.”

Crews replaced nearly everything inside of Step Forward’s Louis Stokes Early Learning Center. In all, the flood destroyed more than two dozen rooms. Most of the rooms were classrooms.

By September, almost all of the materials lost inside of Louis Stokes Early Learning Center were replaced. Step Forward began scheduling the necessary inspections to ensure the health and wellbeing of its enrolled children. The site passed all of the inspections it needed. Ultimately, the center reopened to Early Head Start and Head Start children on October 11.

“Our renovation and our building looks fabulous,” Hawthorne said, enthusiastically. “I am excited to be back!”

As of October 2023, Louis Stokes was fully enrolled, meaning all the seats available at the center were filled.

“The unforeseen disaster disrupted the lives of many, especially the young learners who call Louis Stokes their second home. We are immensely grateful to all of the Early Head Start and Head Start families who stood by Step Forward through the challenges we faced following December’s flood,” Dr. Wilson said. “Their support and resilience during trying times reminded us that together, we can weather any storm and continue to provide a brighter future for our children.”

Louis Stokes Early Learning Center reopening sign

Step Forward plans to hold a reopening ceremony once the students and staff are settled at Louis Stokes Early Learning Center.

“We have taken steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Phillips-Olivier promised. “There were some construction issues that allowed this to happen and those have been corrected.”

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