St. Mary's County officials learned Tuesday that they will receive a $700,000 federal grant to help pay for a new building for the county's Family Center of St. Mary's and Head Start program.

Raymond A. Skinner, secretary of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, revealed the grant in a surprise announcement during an appearance before the St. Mary's County commissioners. During his visit to the county, he also joined the commissioners on a brief tour of the Lexington Park area.

At the Family Center's offices Tuesday afternoon, director Pat Morales could hardly contain her enthusiasm as she stood under warped and stained ceiling tiles, dislodged from their frames, inside a tiny room at the center.

The grant means that Morales won't have to wish the leaks away anymore. "I'm all smiles today! I want to feel the check!" she declared.

Dozens of communities competed for a share of about $2.2 million in community development block grants, federal funding administered through Skinner's state department. This year's requests totaled about $7.5 million. St. Mary's received nearly a third of the money allocated, said Dennis Nicholson, executive director of St. Mary's County's Housing Authority.

"Three years ago, we could only afford to fix half the roof," Nicholson said. "It was a Band-Aid program."

The two programs are now housed in a one-story, concrete block structure built in 1941. The gray building, located next to Carver Elementary School, looks much like a military barrack and was once used as a Navy training office.

Head Start occupies one wing of the long, narrow building, and the Family Center is in the other. The quarters are cramped and dilapidated, and the county Health Department has even declared the basement off-limits because of asbestos in the boiler room. The block walls are soft from moisture and crumbling in spots. Center workers barely keep up with peeling paint, which exposes old layers of lead paint when it falls.

"We've been making do, and as you can see, we've done what we could," Morales said.

"The building is really old, and kids need a better environment," said Almos Holland, a Head Start teacher, as he distributed graham crackers to a brood of children Tuesday afternoon.

The county plans to build an 11,000-square-foot, $1.2 million facility on county-owned land off Great Mills Road, west of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. The facility will house Head Start, the federal program for preschool children from low-income families, and the Family Center, a social service program that helps young parents from low-income families obtain high school equivalency degrees while they learn parenting skills and receive computer training.

Both programs serve between 50 and 60 families. But county officials expect to double the number of people assisted in the new facility.

"I think it's going to be a definite benefit to the community, and it's another piece in the revitalization of Lexington Park," said County Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills).

Nicholson said the two programs' parent administration will look into financing the rest of the project with bonds and donations.

"They put in a very good application," Skinner said. "The county demonstrated the need."

The county has sought federal grants for the project twice during each of the last three years. Nicholson said they are competitive, which means that Skinner's office picks and funds the best proposals.

When she joined the center last year "and saw the need, I knew it was something that could not wait," Morales said. "We made enough noise."

On Tuesday, Morales was making noises of celebration.