Alumni Spotlight: Pathways for Young Parents

Jenna Luoma and Trecia Nickerson, two Head Start alumnae from Community Action Alger-Marquette Head Start in Marquette, Michigan.

Young parents face unique challenges. Just as they are getting started in the world, they are charged with the monumental task of raising a family. Entering parenthood early can shape and impact their futures. The Annie E. Casey Foundation reported in 2018 that 3.4 million children in the U.S. were living with young parents, ages 18 to 24.

“Thirty-seven percent of them, mostly babies, toddlers and preschoolers, live in poverty — nearly twice the national child poverty rate — and 69 percent live in families with incomes less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.” The report also found socioeconomic pathways through programs like Head Start can set in motion enduring progress for these young parents and their children.

Two Head Start alumnae from Community Action Alger-Marquette Head Start in Marquette, Michigan, Jenna Luoma and Trecia Nickerson, tell their stories of finding their own paths to thriving futures as young parents.

Jenna Luoma Realized the Strength of Head Start as a Parent

I attended Community Action Alger-Marquette (CAAM) Head Start in Marquette, Michigan. At that time, my mom was a hard-working single parent. Head Start supported her efforts to work full-time and raise a family. I remember the program welcoming my family’s involvement, like my grandmother coming to class often to play with me in the house area. I also remember the kindness of the teachers and staff. Once, my mom and aunts were delayed getting home because of work, and the bus driver stayed with me. We played on the swings until the adults could get there. The bus driver wasn’t angry that my mom was late. She seemed happy to keep me safe. I’ll never forget that.

Though I attended as a child and have a few memories, it wasn’t until I became a parent and an employee that I fully realized the strength of Head Start. I, too, was a young, single mom and working two jobs—one of them as an aide for the same program I attended as a child. Saying that single parenting is challenging is an understatement. Thankfully, the program surrounded me with incredible support. CAAM teachers and staff encouraged me as a parent, an employee, and as a person. My family advocate helped me to verbalize my educational and professional goals and to see how to work toward them.

In my experience, sometimes, social service agencies seem dismissive of single parents. It‘s like they discount your parenting ability because of your status. CAAM Head Start never dismissed me. I was never an afterthought in my children’s education. That’s because the teachers and staff at CAAM Head Start operate with the belief that parents—no matter their status—love their children, want what is best for them, and are working hard to provide for them.

While my children were enrolled, I was involved in the Parent Policy Council and the Health Advisory Board. Both gave me opportunities to influence my child’s educational experience and add credible skills to my resume.

Head Start has provided pathways for me to accomplish dreams and for my children to gain excellent preparation for school. I served as a parent representative to the Michigan Head Start Association and obtained a degree in Community Health Education. I am now a family advocate for the same program that served my mom as a single parent and me.

I work with Head Start because I believe and know first-hand how the program supports children and families. I am fortunate that now I am in the role that was so instrumental in helping me. I can come alongside and support parents who, just like me, are working hard to provide for their children. I can help these families thrive. That’s a great feeling.

Early Head Start Made the Difference for Trecia Nickerson

I attended CAAM Head Start. I remember meeting my teacher for the first time in my home and having fun when I was in school. My mother recalls the home visits—that they were a help during hard times—and that my teacher was supportive, especially because I was behind for my age. My experience with Head Start helped me catch up to my other peers, educationally and emotionally. But my most vivid memories of Head Start come from the program's impact when my son was enrolled and from working for Head Start.

I gave birth 12 weeks prematurely to our first child Matthew. The hospital social worker immediately referred us to CAAM’s Early Head Start's home visiting program. I remember my husband and I were scared and unsure as new, young parents with a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit. Once Matthew came home from the hospital, our home visitor came every week. We felt overwhelmed and her kindness and support made all the difference. When Matthew turned three, he transitioned into Head Start.

At that time, I was looking for employment. My home visitor encouraged me to apply for a job with the program as an Early Head Start classroom aide. That sounded easier than it was. During high school, I had an Individualized Educational Plan for academic challenges. This experience sometimes left me feeling unsure of my abilities as an adult. My home visitor didn't doubt my abilities at all. At her urging, I applied and got the job.

That job started a chain reaction in my life. I grew from a classroom aide to a home visitor for Early Head Start. Then, I advanced to family advocate and went back to school to get bachelors' degrees in criminal justice and sociology while working full-time. I loved being a family advocate because it allowed me to work with and support parents and families in our community. Six years ago, I started my current role as family services manager. I am lucky to work with people dedicated to the mission of Head Start and with parents who are working hard to succeed and see their children thrive.

Head Start nurtures my natural desire to lead, serve, and support. I am Eligibility, Recruitment, Selection, Enrollment, and Attendance-certified, which helps our program assess and meet families' needs in our community. I am also a qualified National Family Development Credential trainer, which enables staff to support and coach families to set and reach their goals to self-sufficiency. Additionally, Head Start has provided me with numerous leadership opportunities like presenting methods to reduce chronic absence at national and state conferences. The culmination of all this was last year when I was honored with the Aubrey Puckett Memorial Award. I am humbled and grateful for the colleagues who see me as worthy of recognition.

My growth and my family's growth are because of Head Start. Head Start provides a solid educational foundation for children and gives young parents, single parents, and all parents tools to unlock dreams and better themselves.

Malkia Payton-Jackson

Malkia Payton-Jackson

Malkia Payton-Jackson is NHSA’s first-ever director of alumni engagement. Back in Cambridge, Head Start is where she made her first best friend — and now, she’s inviting Head Start alumni to connect with one another, share their unique stories, and help keep Head Start strong for generations to come. Join the network here.

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