PUSH forced to close

by Lauren Hallow Published:

After serving Franklin County’s special needs children for more than 30 years, PUSH Early Childhood Development Center announced Thursday it will be closing its doors next week.

“It is not without struggle that PUSH has survived severe economic times,” read a statement from the center’s executive director, Krista Hudson.

“… The leaders of PUSH have re-defined, re-created, adjusted and faced the challenge of change, but in the end, even the most diligent of efforts weren’t enough to save the strapped school.”

The Board of Directors passed a motion in its meeting Wednesday night to suspend the center’s operations starting Feb. 24, citing deficits and a decline in funding.

“It’s shocking … but it’s not surprising,” a tearful Hudson said Thursday at the center, hours after she broke the news to the staff. “If we thought we could save it, honestly, we wouldn’t be doing this.”

Founded in 1979 by parents of children with special needs, PUSH is a learning center that specializes in working with economically, physically and socially disadvantaged children.

There are currently 41 kids, ranging from infants to 5-year-olds, enrolled.

While watching some of the children play Thursday, Hudson became emotional as she discussed the “new face” of special needs children – kids living with abuse – and how once the center closes, she didn’t know where these kids would go. 

“More than ever, we see children living with domestic violence, poverty ... and abuse in their home,” she said. “And we are their safe place.”

“… If we had someone call us with that magic number …” she mused.

However, City Commissioner Michael Turner, who serves on the PUSH Board of Directors, said the center would need multiple numbers, not just one, to keep it afloat.

“You could take over some of your debt issues, if someone were to write a large check, but there is no magic number for keeping it open,” Turner told The State Journal.

“You got to be able to sustain the monthly revenues to be able to cover the necessary expenses, and that’s something this board has really tried to do over the last year or so.”

Turner said the board added more fundraising to cover PUSH’s $22-23,000 monthly expenses, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the center’s low revenue from cuts in funding and decreasing enrollment due to competition from other preschools and childcare centers.

In one last fundraising effort, the board sent a letter last week to past donors, nearly begging them to help PUSH with the “fight for existence.”

“If we cannot raise a momentous sum of funds in a short amount of time,” the letter read, “then our program is finished and the vulnerable children we serve will be sentenced to disadvantageous outcomes for the future, we fear.”

In addition to Hudson, nearly 10 staff members lost their jobs Thursday.

“(The news) was very disturbing,” said Program Coordinator Faye Lewis, who’s been at PUSH for 11 years. “These kids are like my family.”

Families of former students are also taking the news hard.

Connie Clark’s 19-year-old son, Jacob, born with a part of his brain missing, attended PUSH from when he was 6 months to 4 years old. Doctors told Connie her son may never walk, talk or see and would lack basic motor skills.

After a little more than a year at PUSH, Jacob was walking. 

“They were wonderful,” Clark said of the staff. “They gave him a start, more than what he probably would have got at home.”

Diana Fry also credits PUSH with giving her son an extra boost.

When Fry enrolled Drew, who had ADD, for pre-school at PUSH, it was difficult to get him to read and sit still, Fry said, but now the 26-year-old is a “ferocious reader.”

“They really helped him in a very kind and gracious and non-punitive way,” Fry said.

Fry said the staff was great with working with individual children and meeting each one’s needs.

She thought back to a time when she chaperoned a PUSH field trip and a mother asked her to hold her little girl, who was disabled, while she unfolded her wheelchair. While making small talk, the girl responded to Fry’s questions with taps to acknowledge agreement or disagreement.

The girl's mother said her daughter learned to communicate that way through PUSH. 

“I don’t know where children like that are going to be able to get that kind of care,” Fry said.

Hudson said she and her staff are working with parents to find them other preschools and childcare centers.

She also said she hopes to make PUSH available in some form through in-home therapy sessions or for there to be a PUSH advisory board, but as of right now, those are just ideas, she said.

In the meantime, Hudson said she’s going along with PUSH’s second meaning: “Pray until something happens.”

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