Pascagoula — Some large corporations may not see the link between early childhood education and business. Fortunately for quite a few Jackson County families, Chevron does.
The employees of Chevron Pascagoula Refinery saw a need to help daycare facilities get up and running after Hurricane Katrina shut down almost all of them across the county. They were led by Steve Renfroe, director of public affairs, and Amy Brandenstein, community affairs representative. Almost 40 daycare centers were repaired, refurbished and given new supplies to reopen.
“During the first week after the storm people started thinking about going back to work. It was obvious that child care providers had been hit hard and there was nowhere for children to stay,” Renfroe said. “We saw the need and no one else was doing it.”
Being at the forefront of early childhood education is not a new thing for Chevron. In 2004, the Pascagoula Refinery provided a grant of $650,000 to launch a pilot program in the state called Excel by Five, designed to improve a child’s overall well-being by age five. The program was piloted in Cleveland, West Point, Petal and Pascagoula.
Through this program the company had a relationship with Dr. Cathy Grace, professor and director of the Early Childhood Institute at Mississippi State University. She was asked to conduct an assessment of the county’s licensed childcare centers and found that 75% of the facilities were shut down in Pascagoula and 25% were not open across Jackson County.
“It wasn’t hard to do,” Grace said. “It was obvious when we drove to these places that some facilities were really bad. Unfortunately, most were bad. There were not many borderline cases and there was a lot of mold. Some information was also taken by telephone from daycare providers.”
The facilities were marked red, yellow and green to denote the level of work needed and a priority list was established.
“Those housing the most children needed to be opened the quickest because it would affect the most people,” Brandenstein said. “Repairing these facilities was a very important thing to us and we have a sense of pride in what we did. This is one of the largest community projects we’ve ever done.”
Sending a message
By repairing the daycare centers, Grace says Chevron sends a strong message to the community that they value young children in Jackson County and wanted them to return to a good environment after the hurricane. She feels the company’s leaders were touched by the families who were wondering how they could return to work, where their children would go and whether or not they would have to move from the area.
“They were concerned that the public schools have a mechanism to assess damage and make repairs, but the private daycare providers don’t,” Grace said. “Chevron truly has a sincere interest in the community and early childhood education. They know it’s the backbone of economic development.”
As a result of Chevron’s involvement, she feels the recovery will be smoother in Jackson County because young families will be able to move back and work there. Renfroe says Chevron was looking for the right place to contribute funds for Katrina relief. That contribution consisted of $500,000 toward the daycare recovery effort, and providing direction and work crews to get them going again. The first one opened around the end of September and the last one is being finished this month.
Some facilities needed extensive rebuilding while others needed only a new fence around the property, a state requirement for licensing. A number of them had to be completely restocked with furniture, appliances, baby beds, books, toys and supplies.
“There was a terrific need,” Renfroe said. “We helped Chevron employees first, but to make it work we had to focus on the whole community. We were glad to do that.”
Labor was handled by some Chevron employees and retirees along with workers from several contracting companies. “Our retirees helped handle the construction side of it on a day-to-day basis to make sure all of it was going as it should,” Brandenstein said. “Ray Dunnam, a Chevron retiree, was there to keep things running smoothly.”
The refinery has received many letters of thanks from grateful parents and daycare workers. Renfroe says people have demonstrated their appreciation. Grace said some of the providers cried with gratitude when they received brand new materials and were able to reopen.
“It’s very unusual in my world of early childhood education to have a large corporation involved. People nationally are surprised when I tell this story,” Grace said. “It’s significant that Chevron didn’t limit themselves to Pascagoula and their employees.”
Education and economic development
Renfroe says the company saw the project as an economic development issue for parents to be able to return to work.
“This project and the need for it cuts across a lot of boundaries and economic strata,” he said. “It was needed by all kinds of people and has had a lot of impact.”
By taking on this huge endeavor, Grace says Chevron has also given her organization a model for other counties impacted by the hurricane. She and others are now putting funds together to replicate the project in Harrison County and counties just north of the Coast.
“What they started in one county is being expanded to others,” she said. “We’re looking at how to finance those facilities that were completely destroyed and help those that need new supplies.”
The Chevron refinery was shut down for over a month following Katrina and more than 300 employees were displaced from their homes. In addition to repairing the childcare centers, the company provided gasoline to emergency response people who could not find fuel, restarted the water systems in Moss Point and Pascagoula and set up a tent city for employees who needed accommodations. The tent city was dismantled in late December.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.