Tomato sauce found its way onto 13-month-old Kenny Reyes's nose and cheeks, the tops of his hands, his lap and even the bottom of his shoes.
In the midst of learning to eat spaghetti with a spoon last week, the Manassas toddler smeared noodles and sauce on the ground and then nearly tripped on the slippery mess.
"Oh, gracious!" his teacher, Jessi Manor, cried merrily before carrying him to a sink just the right size for the toddler. "Oh, no, oh, no. You've got a pizza face!"
Reyes is one of 24 children between 6 weeks and 3 years old who spend their days at Georgetown South Community Center's the new $1.4 million child development facility. Nearly all the children come from Spanish-speaking families, and all are from Manassas, Manassas Park and Prince William County, said Dianna Escobar, an on-site family advocate with Northern Virginia Family Service, an Oakton-based nonprofit organization.
Northern Virginia Family Service offers free child care and other services through Early Head Start, a federal program begun in 1995 by the Department of Health and Human Services to provide services to low-income families and their children up to age 3. About 40 percent of the children's mothers are teenagers, said Mamta Bagla, director of the day-care facility. Many are from Georgetown South.
The community center, which was completed last month, is a first for the Manassas neighborhood, and the child development center is the first of its kind in the Prince William area.
For years, Georgetown South was known for its open-air drug markets and deteriorating townhomes. Up until now, a rickety one-room trailer donated by the City of Manassas in the late 1980s was the community's official gathering place.
The new one-story 7,600-square-foot center along Taney Road houses a police substation, a small library, a community room, offices, a playground and a large patio. It is home to the Georgetown South Community Council, the area's homeowners association.
Plans are underway for a health clinic that would offer immunizations, pregnancy tests and other services. Neighborhood Watch and Georgetown South community meetings have already begun, and story times for children, English as a Second Language and adult education classes will be available.
"We hope it's a place that will draw more people in," said Hannah Senft, president of Georgetown South's Board of Trustees. "And we think it will be a benefit for our community, and it will hopefully be a gathering place for the community, a place where we can provide activities for our young people, adults and seniors."
Senft said she hopes the center will help recruit more residents to volunteer their time to the upkeep of the neighborhood.
Marianne White, 50, a 21-year resident of Georgetown South, said that she had doubts that the center would come to fruition and that she's pleasantly surprised -- and proud.
After all, the idea goes back 10, 15, 20 years.
"The big thing was always how to pay for it," said Senft, who moved to the neighborhood in 1973. "We were able to come together this time."
She said Northern Virginia Family Service approached her several years ago with the idea of a partnership. Northern Virginia Family Service and the Community Council are now co-owners.
The project finally grew legs in January 2003, when the HHS Early Head Start program granted Northern Virginia Family Service $550,000, plus about $190,000 annually to operate the child development center. The grant was used to construct, staff and equip an Early Head Start childhood development center within the larger community center.
That first grant was seed money, said Barbara DeChene, Northern Virginia Family Service's regional director for Prince William. "We couldn't have gone forward if we didn't have that."
From there, Manassas contributed nearly $169,000, Georgetown South's Community Council donated the land -- valued at $180,000 -- and organizers borrowed an additional $800,000, DeChene said.
DeChene said she and other organizers are trying to raise money through donations from businesses, individuals and foundations.
Mayor Marvin L. Gillum (R) called the center a "major, major achievement."
"I'm really delighted," Gillum said. "It gives the area a sense of community. I think it's one of the nicest things the city has accomplished in a long time."
The free child care at the center gives mothers who qualify, such as Cecilia Franco, 24, of Manassas, a chance to hold down a steady job.
Franco, who is originally from Guerrero, Mexico, couldn't afford the $130-a-week day care for her two children, ages 15 months and 3 years, she said through a translator last week. So she stayed at home every day with them and became very depressed, she said.
Parents have to fall below the poverty line and be either working or going to school for at least 30 hours a week to qualify for free day care, center officials said.
Now, Franco splits her days between work at Burger King and ESL classes. She has to learn English to pass the GED requirements, she said.
Franco also spends time with her children at the center, a requirement for all parents. Because of the opportunities available to her since the center opened in mid-May, she has more hope for the future, she said.