Carrie Wingo has made an extraordinary career change: from child development center operator to music festival organizer.
But the Naples resident and owner of 123 Grow With Me, 2737 Bayshore Drive, feels she must do the latter to save the former.
Wingo, along with parents, friends and local supporters — from the Naples Fraternal Order of Police to the Jolly Cricket Cafe — have banded together to stage a “Concert for Kids” festival Aug. 6 at Cambier Park. All of them are hoping the concert and festival income can seed a scholarship fund for 123 Grow With Me.
Wingo opened the campus of two adjacent centers — one infant-toddler and one prekindergarten-age development — four years ago. Nearly all of the students are state-assisted, and Wingo says she feels a special affinity for them.
Within the past two years, however, the center’s enrollment has dropped because of the dragging economy. Now the per-student income the state provides is being cut for the second year in a row.
Without additional funding, Wingo may only be able to accept paying students.
There were two simultaneous punches in July:
■ Stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ended. The state’s early childhood administrator, the Early Learning Coalition, had been able to enroll some qualified children in early development centers with that money.
■ The Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida, which handles state money for Collier, Lee, Hendry and Glades counties, had $2 million axed from its budget.
The center also learned its funds for the single Florida-mandated program for 4-year-olds — open free to any parent who opts to enroll a 4-year-old — would be cut by $600,000.
The amount of reimbursement for the other state-supported program, the School Readiness Program, is administered on a complex schedule. State reimbursement depends on whether the parents are working, and how much; what percentage their income level is under a cutoff of 150 percent of poverty level; and whether the child is in foster or protective care or considered at-risk.
Kathleen Reynolds, chief financial officer of the Early Learning Center of Southwest Florida, which handles grant funds for early learning, sees the formulas as grueling.
“And I was a school superintendent for 10 years,” Reynolds said. “I worked with school finance.”
What Wingo sees are formulas that cut reimbursement for parents who have their work hours reduced but are still above a certain cutoff point. 123 Grow With Me, which is licensed for 40 and 42 children in each center, holds a total of 48 altogether now. Last year, Wingo says, she kept three children in the program free of charge.
It’s not that she can’t find paying students, Wingo said.
“Kicking these students out just because they can’t pay is not what we’re about,” she said. “These are the kids who can really benefit.”
Gina Sharbaugh, a Naples parent with two adopted former foster children in the center, is one of the recipients of her help. She said the state cut funding for their care at a time when her hours as a delivery driver also have been cut. 123 Grow With Me has taken on one of the children under a full scholarship.
“They love it,” Sharbaugh said the center. “They’ve learned their colors, their numbers, their songs. They come home and tell us things.
“My own birth kids didn’t get to go to preschool because we’re middle income and they didn’t get this kind of start.”
That’s why she and other volunteers have joined forces to help Wingo stage the festival.
“We do what we can,” said Sharbaugh. “We don’t have money, but we can help. If we have to stay late and help clean, we will.”
The Concert For Kids Festival, which began as a small fundraiser, has become a 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. event, with food, games and bands from as far away as Arizona who donated their time. Performers include Julian and the Heartthrob Heroes, an Orlando-based band who have been making waves as tour openers.
“The bands have totally been behind us. They really get what we’re trying to do,” Wingo said. “The community support leaves me speechless. It hasn’t been large corporations, but the mom and pop shops, the small businesses, who have really come forward.”
Through donations, from middle school candy sales to sponsorships, the production and venue costs have been covered.
Foxboro Tavern is covering food for the event, which is meant to be family-friendly. The Naples Fraternal Order of Police is footing the hotel bill for entertainers, all of whom Wingo says she vetted.
“I meant for this to be a family-friendly event. That’s why we have things like the bounce house, and Officer McGruff, the police dog, will be there,” she said. “And we didn’t want to make it something that’s out of reach for families.”
Tickets will be $10.
Wingo’s idea is to establish an in-house scholarship fund for youngsters who must meet criteria similar to those of the state — but, she hopes, a bit more simply devised. There is a fund administered by Fifth Third Bank, the Concert for Kids Scholarship Fund, for those who want to contribute.
“We may have to do this every year,” she acknowledged. But she said she knows waiting on state funding is futile.
“While we’re standing around waiting our kids are suffering,” Wingo said. “We’re going to take it into our own hands, and hopefully we’ll make enough money we can make it into an annual scholarship event.”