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Head Start, 50 Years Strong

When Head Start was first launched in 1965, few could have imagined the tremendous role the program would play in our nation’s fight to break the cycle of poverty and put our most vulnerable children on a positive path toward realizing their true potential.  Fifty years later, the program remains a cornerstone of our shared national commitment to ensuring all children, regardless of race or zip code, have the important early developmental foundation necessary to succeed in primary school, and beyond. As a proud Head Start alumna, October, which is Head Start Awareness Month, hits particularly close to home.  

We should all proudly stand up and renew our commitment to making sure all our nation’s children have hope for a brighter future.

I was one of seven children growing up— first in Lima,  then Columbus, Ohio— in a family that placed a high value on education, despite our limited financial resources and the challenges of living in under-resourced neighborhoods. Head Start was an important resource for families like mine because it removed powerful, economic barriers that could have thwarted our educational aspirations. In fact, Head Start laid the foundation for all seven of us to graduate from high school and go on to higher education.  

Head Start ensured that I was prepared for the structure and stimulation of classroom-based learning—following classroom rules, interacting socially with adults and other children, and embracing the idea of learning. Most importantly, Head Start helped me see what was possible: a different kind of life and future than what I knew. I went on to love learning and excelled in school, eventually graduating from law school with honors.

One of my most vivid memories from my early Head Start experience is having a classmate whose family was Italian and going to their house for dinner. It’s the first memory I have of being at someone’s house whose ethnicity was different than mine, and it made me genuinely curious about the world.  It is extremely important for small children, especially those who grow up in marginalized and economically-isolated communities, to have the ability to interact with a wider range of children and adults.  This is a life-enriching aspect of Head Start that is often overlooked.    

In the Head Start classroom we always had competitions, where the best-behaved student was selected to assist with handing out snacks to the other students. I still love the idea that your reward for doing well was assisting others. That early life lesson continues to drive everything I do. Today I serve as Pro Bono Counsel in a non-profit civil legal aid law firm in the District, where I work to help other lawyers and law students volunteer their legal services.  We primarily serve low-income families in neighborhoods very much like the ones I grew up in back in Ohio. 

Part of my work is identifying opportunities for my firm to partner with community-based organizations to find ways to collaborate to address the collateral consequences of unemployment and poverty in the District. Because of my experiences and the benefits my six siblings and I received from Head Start and our public schools, I have consistently looked for ways to support early childhood education programs.  I am so proud of the partnership I formed with Bright Beginnings, a non-profit that provides early childhood education programs for children aged 0-4 whose families are homeless or in transitional housing.  Housing instability can lead to major disruptions in a family, but most people don’t consider the developmental implications for homeless babies and children. Bright Beginnings is a Head Start provider, and they do amazing work to keep homeless children healthy and ensure they are prepared for school.

Access to high-quality, early childhood education programs is vital to lifting children out of poverty.  I am proud to count myself among the 32 million children Head Start has served over the past 50 years, and we should all proudly stand up and renew our commitment to making sure all our nation’s children have hope for a brighter future.