Nearly a century of experience is about to retire from Portage Learning Centers

Karen Johnson and Suzanne Livengood have worked in the service of Portage County children for most of their careers. Submitted photo

By the time Karen Johnson retires at the end of next year, combined with Suzanne Livengood calling it quits in some three weeks, Portage Learning Centers, located in the KeyBank building in Ravenna, will say goodbye to almost a century of extraordinary work.

Livengood has been the executive director of PLC since 1994 and has worked for the organization in many capacities for 48 years, starting when she was just out of high school.

Johnson, meanwhile, has been the director of Head Start since PLC took it over in 1997 and has also worked for the agency in several capacities for 43 years. She will take over for Livengood as PLC’s interim executive director until she retires.

Livengood’s first job with the organization was as executive secretary for the federal grants coordinator for what at the time was called the Portage County Workforce Development Program. The organization incorporated in 1983 as its own nonprofit under the name Portage Private Industry Council, Inc. Prior to that, the agency was with Portage County. In 1997, PLC applied for the Head Start grant. The Community Action Council of Portage County had run Head Start since its inception in 1965.

“The programs that we operate promote school readiness of children from ages birth through 5 years,” Livengood said. “Most of the families that we deal with are low-income families, at 100% poverty level. We can serve a few families that are over-income, and a lot of times we reserve those spots for children with disabilities.”

Since PLC took over Head Start, it has garnered excellent federal reviews.

“We’ve gone in and we’ve renovated centers, we’ve built buildings, made significant changes to the programs that are operated here,” said Livengood. “Every time we have a federal review, they’re impressed with everything that our staff does. They tell us what a great program we have, how we’re doing comprehensive services. We have health, nutrition and social services. It’s a comprehensive program for the families that we serve here in Portage County.”

So what is the difference between Head Start and daycare programs?

“We do screenings for all the children. We do health screenings, we do environmental screenings,” Livengood said. “Basically, we help identify developmental issues that children may have early on so they can get the needed services early, so hopefully by the time they enter kindergarten they no longer need an IEP (individual education plan for a child with a disability). Ten percent of our children have disabilities.”

There are four Head Start locations in Portage County: the Kent Central location, the Waterloo schools campus, and PLC buildings on state Route 303 in Streetsboro and Route 14 in Ravenna.  

“We also do home-based programs, so we have home visitors who go into the homes, especially with our Early Head Start program,” Livengood said. 

The Early Head Start program serves pregnant women and children aged 6 weeks through 3 years. The program covers prenatal education including fetal development and discussions about the benefits of breastfeeding. Some Early Head Start programs for children aged 18 months to three years meet in classrooms at the Kent facility.

Livengood was just looking for a job when she graduated from high school in 1974 and sort of fell into the executive secretary job at PLC.

“I applied through the county. It was called at that time the Employment and Training Act, and I applied for a job there,” she said. “We worked with low-income adults back in the ’70s and ’80s when the economy was in very bad shape and the government was giving us money to retrain and train workers to get them jobs in the public and private sector.”

Livengood enjoyed working in the clerical field, an area she said she was interested in.

“The more I got involved in it, though, the more I could see that we helped people,” she said. “I loved that part of it, showing people that they could succeed and better themselves and get great-paying jobs. … And then when the grant for Head Start became available here in this county, we thought that was a perfect match for us because we’d worked with low-income families for so many years and were so successful. We felt it would be a good opportunity to see what we could do with the youth in the county.

“We’ve served thousands of families and have made such a positive impact on all the families we’ve served in Portage County. In Head Start, we help these children succeed and hopefully have a positive outlook on education and life because of the impact we’ve been able to provide. There are children who come to our program with many obstacles – and we have some children who are even non-verbal. Going out to the centers and watching the children get off the bus and being so excited to learn and to be a part of the program, just to witness that has been such a tremendous asset for me, and that’s what makes my job so exciting every day to come to work.

“And working with the staff that we have … without them, we would be nothing,” she continued. “The staff just puts in 100 percent to help with these families. They’re not in it for the money. This is a nonprofit. People don’t make very much money working here, but everyone has a big heart. We’re like a close-knit family. Even though we have more than 70 employees, we all have the same goal in mind, and that is to help these children succeed in life.”

According to Livengood, the entire early childhood educational system has changed over the last 25 years.

“When we started with Head Start, the teachers did not have to be degreed. Now they do,” she said. “They’re constantly increasing the amount of skills and education for all staff in the entire program. To be a teacher in our program, you have to have a degree in early childhood education. In our social service field, they have to have an associate or bachelor’s degree in a field related to social, human or family services. We’re constantly striving to do better and to provide more education. The curriculum has changed, the assessments have changed. Everything has progressed in a positive manner over the past 25 years so that the information we’re providing to these children, the education, has had a better impact on them.”

Livengood has served on several boards over the years, including the Girl Scouts of the Western Reserve and Northeast Ohio Consortium Council of Governments, and she still serves on the Community Action Council. She was a member of the Leadership Portage Class and was inducted into the Waterloo Athletic Hall of Fame. She received the Woman of the Year Award from Business and Professional Women and was recognized during the 70th anniversary of National Business Women’s Week for services to business and professional women.

Livengood has enjoyed her nearly 50 years working for PLC.

“I’ve particularly enjoyed seeing the progress of these children, seeing the love and support that our staff is able to provide to these families,” she said. “That’s just meant the world to me. My board has always been supportive of me. I started when I was 18, so I didn’t have a degree. I finally got my bachelor’s degree in business management I think at age 43 from Malone University. The best moment of my career would be getting my college degree after working on it for so many years. And knowing the impact I’ve had on these families, children, parents and staff over the years has been another great moment.”

When asked about the future of education, Livengood said that a good work ethic is key.

“People,” she said, “have to be devoted to their career, they have to be devoted to the agency they work for, they need to want to come to work, be prepared for work, give 100 percent while they’re at work, which is what I’ve tried to instill in the staff that I work with. They need to understand that the job that we have here is so vitally important to the future of these children who we serve and to the families.”

As for Johnson, she started with the agency in 1979 as a clerk typist and in the mid-1980s earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Kent State University.

“It wasn’t anything that I actually went to school for and decided that’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “I thought I’d go into human resources, personnel-related work, but I really like working with people, so that’s where I ended up going with it. Honestly, it was the best possible thing for me, how I ended up there. It was exactly what I needed. Human resources when I was early in college, I knew I wanted to work with people.”

Like Livengood, Johnson kind of grew into her present job.

“I’ve always wanted to serve the community,” she said. “It’s something that my family likes to do as well. We like to be involved in the community, so working for workforce development with people who were unemployed or underemployed with folks getting GEDs, all of that, was really something I ended up enjoying doing. Working with PLC all this time has really been a gift. That’s exactly where I needed to be. When the Head Start grant became available in our community, I thought at that time I could be the director.”

Johnson took great pride in seeing high school dropouts earn their GEDs and get jobs back when PLC did workforce development, and she now takes the same pride in seeing children develop through Head Start.

“We were helping the high school dropouts build work skills and build academic skills,” she said. “There are so many of those clients who were so successful. We’d have a graduation program for them. Just seeing them be able to go across the stage and actually get a diploma, their own GED, just to see the look on their faces and how proud they were in their accomplishments – because by then they were employed – was wonderful. And now in Head Start, to see those children when they start class in the fall and see them in the spring, it’s just amazing. Those kids are just so amazing, the changes that they’ve made and the development.”

Over the past 25 years, Johnson has helped to secure state and federal funding to provide Portage County residents with Head Start services. In 2009, she was instrumental in expanding services to provide Early Head Start benefits for pregnant women and children aged 6 weeks to 3 years.

According to Johnson, it isn’t just the Head Start workers who decide how the organization is run.

“There’s a group policy council,” she said, “and it’s a group of parents and community representatives who meet on a monthly basis to go through and make decisions about the program and to help the board by giving recommendations to the board on how the program is run. That gives the parents real input into the program. I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many absolutely fantastic parents who have not only interest in the day-to-day goings-on with their own children but also in the program itself. I had a parent come back to me about six months ago, showing up at the office, and she said, ‘I remember you from policy council many years ago, and my son, who was a preschooler at the time, is graduating from high school and going to college,’ and she was so proud. That’s the reason I go to work every day.”

Johnson believes children must get an early start in education.

“Those early years, zero to 3 years of age, is when there’s a lot of brain development,” she said. “From zero to 5 there’s so much growth and development that, if you can get them started early, it makes a world of difference.”

Becky Gorczyca, vice chair of the board at PCL, has served on the board of directors and held various board positions for 30 years. She feels that Livengood and Johnson have run a very efficient operation with Head Start. In fact, from 1983-2021 more than 25,000 Portage County residents were served by programs operated by PLC under Livengood’s leadership. A total of $107,930,957 of federal and state funding was brought to Portage County in that time.

“Year after year, the state and the fed have awarded them bonuses for high performance. Their work has been exceptional,” she said. “As far as what parents and children would probably say, they’ve kept up with all of the regulations and have exceeded all those expectations for the children. There’s lots of testing at the beginning of the school year to see where children are as a baseline and then testing at the end to see what the improvement is. We’ve always had high marks in those kinds of performances.

“There are children who need help getting a head start basically, so Suzanne and Karen have been instrumental in locating those kids. Once they’ve found them, they get them into programs in the different centers in the county and help them so that when they hit kindergarten, they are up to speed and sometimes ahead of children who have not been in the Head Start program.”

According to Gorczyca, the hardest part of the job for Livengood and Johnson is keeping up with changing regulations.

“They’ve done that magnificently,” she said. “The state will come in and say, ‘We decided we’re going to do something different this time.’ And then you have to pivot, and they’re very good at being able to pivot.”

Gorczyca knows it is going to be very difficult to replace both women.

“We’ve been searching for competent people who are smart enough to be able to learn quickly what needs to be done and who have teachable spirits basically. Both of the jobs are very complex,” she said. “We’ve really appreciated what Suzanne and Karen have done for this county because they have such a heart for education, they have such a heart for children. Their goal is to make life better for the children in this county.”

Roger Gordon
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