Kelker retiring from Head Start; board selects new executive director

2014-03-25T18:45:00Z 2014-04-03T16:31:05Z Kelker retiring from Head Start; board selects new executive directorBy ZACH BENOIT The Billings Gazette

Jennifer Owen, a Billings attorney who is the current chairwoman of the Republican party in Yellowstone County, has been named the new executive director of the Billings Head Start program.

“I’m really excited to be taking over as executive director of Head Start in Billings,” she said. “I believe that it’s a critical investment in our community to break the cycle of poverty.”

The Head Start board of directors tasked Owen with heading up the early childhood program, which serves more than 300 low-income children in the Billings area, earlier this month after a nationwide search that began last fall.

She’ll officially be introduced as executive director on Thursday evening at an event at the Yellowstone Art Museum.

“Jennifer has a terrific background and a heart for working with families and children,” said outgoing director Kathy Kelker, who will officially retire this spring after six years in the job. “She has a background in law and has done work in grant writing and managing larger budgets. You want to have someone with a passion for the mission, and that’s exactly what our board was looking for.”

Owen is an attorney specializing in energy policy, law and regulation. She previously worked at the Department of Energy and in the United States Senate, for the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and later as an adviser to Sen. Conrad Burns.

She also was editor of the Montana Energy Review, a Billings Gazette Communications publication that focused on regional energy development.

In 2011 and 2012, she spent nine months in Nicaragua helping to open a clinic for women and children in extreme poverty, called Clinica Verde.

She continues to serve as an adviser to the clinic and also sat until last year on the board of directors of Stupid Cancer, a national nonprofit that supports young adults with cancer.

In spring 2013, Owen was elected chairwoman of the Yellowstone County Republican Party.

She said on Tuesday that she will officially resign from that position on Friday and begin at Head Start on Monday.

Born and raised in Billings, Owen described herself as passionate about education in the community and wants to direct her focus, at least initially, toward two items.

First, she said she wants to find a way to address the waiting list for students to get into Head Start. That waiting list sits about 100 students deep and, since the program serves 3- and 4-year-olds, there’s only a small window in which to enroll them.

Her second goal is to increase Head Start’s visibility in the community.

“I want to make sure that this area understands how successful this program really is,” she said.

The board plans to officially introduce Owen at a Head Start student reception at the Yellowstone Art Museum from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

The event draws as many as 700 attendees and features art by the Head Start students.

“We want to invite the entire community to come to the event at the YAM on Thursday night,” Owen said. “It’s a family-friendly event for the community.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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