SMILE wins appeal; applies for Head Start grant

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LAFAYETTE, La. (KLFY)— Applications are in for the Head Start Early Childhood Education Grant, and thanks to a recent appeal, the St. Martin, Iberia, and Lafayette (SMILE) Community Action Agency is applying for the first time in years.

Head Start began in Acadiana with SMILE over 50 years ago, but their trust was fractured in 2017 by allegations of abuse and neglect. Since then CEO Craig Matthews has been trying to counter a stigma of doubt and believes winning this grant is a great way to do so.

“We believe that we’re going to be victorious, and I say that with confidence,” stated Craig Matthews. Monday night, the SMILE Community Action Agency Chief Executive Officer submitted what he called a “Winning grant application”.

The non-profit’s eligibility was taken in 2017 when the Federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF) said SMILE failed to timely correct problems raised from abuse and neglect allegations.

“It was definitely not a fair outcome,” Matthews told News 10. “It was not a fair decision in the onset to terminate SMILE based on the reasons that were given.”

ACF gave smile three deficiencies to fix in 30 days: compliance with federal reporting laws, safety practices, and personnel standards. Since every example showing no fix was made did not go past the 30 day correction period, the Washington Head Start office reversed that the grant termination in an appeal.

Matthews said he wishes the initial judgment would not have been so rushed, “Here we are two and a half years later. Had that decision been handed down two years ago, then not only had the decision have been reversed, but the action would have been reversed, and SMILE would still have been operating its program.”

According to Matthews, when Head Start was terminated, SMILE lost 75% of its funding, and 480 person workforce was reduced by over 80%.

Now, SMILE is recompeting with other programs, after previously giving almost 50 years of uninterrupted Head Start services.

“There’s virtually no comparison between the quality of services that SMILE rendered prior to this decision and what’s been happening over the past two and a half years,” Matthews claimed.

The CEO admitted there was “A lot of turmoil” and “Reasons to be concerned” years ago. “We’ve learned in hindsight that perhaps there had been some individuals both at the staff level and even at the board level that perhaps did not present to be the best fit for this corporation and its mission,” Matthews explained.

Since the 2017 judgment, there have been major personnel and board changes inside SMILE, including the addition of Craig Matthews as CEO.

“The relationship between the community and this corporation has been severed, and so the fallout of that has been tremendous and still being felt today,” he stated.

According to Matthews, even before the application submission Monday, SMILE has been ready to rebuild headstart better than ever. This year’s theme for the community action agency is “Embracing the new.”

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