The federal Department of Health and Human Services' Early Head Start program has awarded a $550,000 grant for a facility in a proposed Georgetown South community center that organizers hope will serve as a model for similar facilities across the region.

On Monday, Falls Church-based Northern Virginia Family Service (NVFS), a nonprofit organization, was awarded the grant to construct, staff and equip an Early Head Start childhood development center within the proposed community center in Manassas. It will also get $190,000 annually to operate the center.

Community center backers say they hope the grant will bolster their own fundraising efforts, noting that the grant money will go elsewhere if enough money isn't raised to build the community center, estimated to cost about $900,000, not including the child development facility.

Julie Shuell, NVFS's deputy director for Early Head Start, said the center would be the first in the region to mix Early Head Start with other community services at one site. Early Head Start is a federal program begun in 1995 to augment the Head Start preschool program by providing services low-income pregnant women and their children up to age 3.

Shuell said six teachers in four classrooms would serve as many as 32 children, infants to 3-year-olds, from qualified Georgetown South families.

Local organizers say the community center would include space for law enforcement, an adult probation and parole office, a recreation room, a clinic and classrooms for health education, English as a Second Language, teen mentoring and pregnancy prevention services and a drop-off site for the county library. Shuell said she hopes that the community center will be completed by February 2004.

"We will focus on quality caregiving, which means not just leaving infants and toddlers in swings and cribs, but really working on their development through sensory activities like singing, talking and finger games," Shuell said.

Teachers will also provide adult education. "We'll help them with job training, education referrals and health services," Shuell said.

NVFS receives about $1.7 million annually in Early Head Start grants to serve about 200 children through eight facilities in Northern Virginia, including one that coordinates home visits in Manassas.

The Georgetown South Early Head Start center, along with another facility set to open in Arlington next month, would push that total to 240, a high number considering Early Head Start began in 1995, Shuell said.

"It'll kind of be like one-stop shopping," Shuell said. "And a really high-quality center is so obviously different from one that's not."

Shuell said that she hopes federal lawmakers will view the center as a prototype for the Early Head Start program.

NVFS will serve as a co-owner of the facility, along with the Georgetown South Community Council Inc., which currently owns the property on which the center would be built.

Hannah Senft, president of the council, moved to the neighborhood in 1975.

"The idea of having a community center [in Georgetown South] has been talked about for 10, 15, 20 years," Senft said, adding that she remembers NVFS approaching her organization several years ago with the idea of a partnership.

Senft said that she believes the strong working relationship between Early Head Start and NVFS was instrumental in the development of the project.

Last month, the Manassas City Council approved a special-use permit for the project.

Organizers say the next step is more fundraising before construction can begin.

"My worst nightmare is not being able to come up with another $500,000," Shuell said. "The federal money alone is not enough. If we don't come up with additional money then we'll have to take the $550,000 and do something else with it."

Some money has been raised for the community center, but Senft said she and others will seek additional funding from various private and public sources, including the City of Manassas.