I am a Head Start Parent.
I always say that I wish I had been a Head Start child. Being raised in poverty in the late 60's and 70's, I truly grew up in abject poverty. My family lived with constant hunger and food insecurity, utilities often turned off, and my father was a single parent who had difficulty holding down a job because of addictions to alcohol and drugs. There were sometimes days that my two younger siblings and I were left alone with no adult, and no one to care for us or feed us. As I look back, I can see how the instability and these early life challenges have impacted me my whole life, even today.
But now, I am a Head Start Parent.
My Head Start story began shortly after my husband and I decided to get married and blend our families. We knew we didn't want to fail. We didn't want to fail each other, or our children. Our love for each other and for our children was strong, but he and I had both grown up in poverty, toxic stress, and with rampant neglect and abuse. We both had parents who were addicted to alcohol and drugs, but thankfully we had both chosen to steer clear of those things. We were both divorced from former abusive spouses, and we knew the statistical odds of us staying married, and raising our children to be happy, productive and whole people were slim at best. We also knew we had no parental support from our own families, and that meant no multigenerational knowledge of child rearing, or even simple life skills, were handed down to us. We were truly on our own to seek out and ask for parenting advice. Stephan and I are resourceful people, but when you don't know that you need to seek out advice, or even the right questions to ask, life issues become overwhelming, bad parenting practices are the only parenting practices you know, and hopelessness starts to creep in. So, we went along doing the best we could parenting our children, making the best decisions we could at the time.
Then we found Head Start.
The first time I learned about Head Start, I had only been living in Oregon for less than 6 months. My husband Stephan was on an Operation with his Army National Guard Unit to Japan, and I was at home pregnant, with our newly blended family of five children. The two youngest children, 3 and just turned 4, both had issues that were impacting their growth and development on physical, cognitive, and social-emotional levels. One with cognitive learning delays since a very preterm birth, and the other diagnosed with attachment disorder, and Asperger's. They were a handful, I had no experience or education on how to care for their special needs, and didn't know enough then to realize I needed to reach out for help, and I was exhausted. When one of my elementary school children brought home a flyer about Head Start, I was excited to apply. I was aware of the benefits a Pre-Kindergarten education would hold for my two youngest, I was unaware of the amazing effects and education it would hold for me, and our whole family as well.
Both children started in the Fall of 2006. I was amazed at all the things Head Start was providing. My children were engaged and learning. They were happy and thriving, being fed healthy, fresh cooked food. Learning autonomy by serving themselves food, and brushing their teeth every day at school. My children's teacher would tell me all about their day, what books they liked, activities they were interested in, and there were always hugs for me and my children! Our Family Advocate was always there for us to lean on for guidance, advice, and just ask questions of if we felt unsure. She discussed our home-life with us and asked us what we wanted to accomplish in life, and as parents. Stephan and I were able to take a series of childhood brain development courses, and parenting courses, and learned different methods to communicate and teach all of our children based on what ages and developmental stages they were at. By educating Steve and me in tandem with educating our children, our home was made a calmer and more stable place. Our family became more stable, loving and attached. Stephan and I were empowered with the knowledge to make informed decisions and choices for our children from everything from better nutrition and health care decisions, to the somewhat invisible issues such as the importance of reading to your child each day, and the positive impact that regular, on-time attendance has all the way through high school. The knowledge we gained, and the supports we were given helped us all as a family more than I could ever express. We felt loved, accepted, encouraged and cared for. There was always a smile, a shoulder, a hug, and a warm cup of something, or a hot meal with my child. Head Start became our family.
When our youngest three children began at Head Start, I found out about the opportunity to serve my Head Start center, agency, and my community by sitting on the Policy Council. I dove right in and started to learn about everything Head Start and Early Childhood Education. I served for three years on the Policy Council, and the growth I have seen in myself has been nothing short of amazing. I have learned not only how to be a knowledgeable, resourceful and empowered parent, but I also learned how to mentor my peers to be the same.
When I sat on the Policy Council, I ran for and was elected as the Chairperson and the State Representative. I ran meetings, was involved in executive and policy making decisions for our agency for budgeting, curriculum, staffing, enrollment, and much more. I was involved with advocating for the importance of early childhood education on a local, state and federal level, and spoke regularly with State and Federal elected officials, and with the media too. The one thing I enjoyed the most; however, was pairing with another Head Start parent and planning, fundraising, and hosting a Parent Leadership Training for the Policy Council parents of our agency. To see the growth and connection that these parents made during just a short opportunity to connect and learn alongside their peers was an experience I will never forget, and never take for granted.
Through the leadership opportunities I was given, and the mentoring I received at Head Start, I am now able to give back to my whole community in so many amazing ways. I now sit on the Board of Directors for Southern Oregon Head Start, the Oregon Head Start Association, and the National Head Start Association. In my local community, I sit on the Executive Council and the Parent Advisory Council in the creation of the Southern Oregon Early Learning Systems Hub. I am also actively involved in the creation and application of a private grant that has been awarded to our area to enhance the knowledge and connection of parents in all income brackets. My hope is that we can create a culture shift in our area that will not only provide, education, support, information and knowledge for all parents to connect but that they also will be knowledgeable and empowered enough to then be able to mentor and support one another, as I have learned to do. I have been provided opportunities to travel to many places within the United States to attend early childhood education conferences, and meet other Head Start parents. I have learned about the incredible impact that Head Start is making in people's lives throughout the nation.
I believe I am making a difference in the future for our families and children in not only my community but my State, Region and also nationally. I see myself as a conduit of connection for other parents and the communities they live in. I have truly been empowered by the love, caring and education offered to me while my children were offered their "Head Start" at their education and life.
I always say that I gained strong leadership skills while serving in the United States Marine Corps, but I didn't really know how to love or be loved until I was a Head Start Parent.
I now feel there is nothing I cannot set my sights on, no dream too large to try for, and have been empowered with the ability to master my own life. None of this would have been possible without Head Start. The path of coming generations of not only my family has been altered, but for every family I mentor and touch, all because the teachers and staff of Head Start believed in me.
I am intelligent, I am strong, I am a leader, I am a mentor, I am empowered, I am capable, I am helpful and I am grateful.
I am a Head Start Parent.
Photo by Cari Baker Photography