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Buckeye Lake LEADS sends children home

BUCKEYE LAKE – For the time being, the LEADS Buckeye Lake Head Start program will no longer meet at the LEADS building on Walnut Road, at W. 1st Street. Evacuating 36 children in the event of a dam breach is far more difficult than evacuating adults, said LEADS Director Ken Kempton.

“We could not put our children at risk,” he said. Kempton said the rest of the services, including the nearby food pantry, will continue in the LEADS building as usual, but the preschool children will no longer meet there.

Instead, Head Start/Early Head Start director Marianne Chillinsky said preschool teachers will meet with individual students at their homes for an hour and a half session once per week, and all children will meet at a LEADS facility in Newark every Friday. “The families aren’t losing the services,” she said, but the program’s format is changed.

“It was not an easy decision,” Kempton said. He said he met with ODNR representatives to discuss safety after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its report saying the 4.1-mile Buckeye Lake Dam has a high risk of failure.

Governor John Kasich allocated up to $150 million to replace the dam over the next five years, at least. “We took very seriously that report,” Kempton said. He said he understands there’s some community skepticism as to the urgency of the report; however, “We can’t wait around to see what happens. We must act now.”

Kempton said the LEADS office is very close to the dam and if it does breach, it would take a while to evacuate 36 students, and worried it would take too long before the office is inundated with water. Adults can evacuate more quickly than children. He said Buckeye Lake Head Start would stick with the home visitation program at least through the end of this program year, which is May 22, and then re-evaluate. However, the children won’t return to the Buckeye Lake LEADS building until there’s no longer danger of a dam breach, which could be years.

“Obviously, some (parents) were disappointed,” Chillinsky said, but the majority were very supportive.

Kempton said 25 out of 29 parents affected attended a meeting where the changes were explained. He was clear that funding was not an issue and a rumor that Head Start would lose federal money if changes were not made is false. Kempton said the Buckeye Lake LEADS facility is very close to the dam and it was decided removing the children from the location was in their best interest, period. He said the LEADS policy council supported the decision.

“The community’s been very supportive of us,” Chillinsky said, adding that local schools, the Licking County Commissioners, and local mayors have been very supportive of LEADS as well.

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