by Cesca Janece Waterfield
The Head Start Program appeared on Maxine Bailey’s radar right in time.
Seven years ago, she was caring for six grandchildren, including Natasha, Darryl, and Alfred, whose mother, Sonya, was struggling with employment. “I was ready to tear my hair out,” Maxine remembers. “I really didn’t know where to turn. But Head Start came in and they opened avenues to various community resources.”
Head Start is a non-profit organization created in 1965, and the longest-running early childhood education program in the nation. To date it has served nearly 25 million children. At Virginia Commonwealth University, Head Start partners with the School of Social Work to provide early childhood education and family support to about 210 pre-school aged children primarily from low-income families throughout Richmond. The program relies on partnerships among the community to provide comprehensive services.
Maxine remembers, “There was even a program for the grandparents where they could share what they were going through. It was not a pity party. They gave us positive resources. It was excellent.”
Audrey M. Ingram, Comprehensive Service Specialist at the VCU program says, “A big part of Head Start is getting parents involved in their children’s education, and just to enhance that family unit. We work with the family on goals as well as other opportunities like budgeting, home buying, nutrition and parenting.”
Kara D. Arceneaux, Interim Program Director says, “We offer everything from a GED program where we pay for books, registration and calculator. We babysit the children, and tutor the older children while moms and dads are in classes.”
They recently organized a men’s group for population whose numbers they believe are on the rise; single fathers. “We are a small staff but we get so much done. We are one of the best-kept secrets in Richmond,” says Audrey.
Today they recruit and register eligible children through Richmond Public Schools. But for most of their years, they used grass roots tactics to reach families.
Kara says, “We would get in the Head Start vans, and we’d each take a side of town with our own flyers. Between barber shops, beauty salons, Laundromats, grocery stores, we would talk to people and give them flyers.”
James and Mary Taneti are originally from India. They both attend Union Theological Seminary, where James is a Ph.D. candidate. Almost three years ago, they enrolled their son Vismai, who was then 3-years-old in Head Start, and soon after, daughter Vismitha. The girl was barely 3 at the time.
“She used to cry everyday,” Mary remembers. “They spent time with her and found out that she liked to have responsibilities in the class. Once they started giving her responsibilities in class, she wanted to go. I like the attention Head Start gives and the things they think about.”
For the Taneti family, who’ve been in the U.S. for only three years, Head Start helps them all adjust to a new culture. “Even though we are from a different country, they didn’t feel any difference” Mary says. “Recently we had a money management workshop. After that, we really started saving. The parents came to know each other and they organized some activities for the husbands and fathers.”
“We are free to go there [during class] and they receive us with a smile,” James says. “Not only do the children feel at home, we also feel at home. It’s education for the parents and the children.”
Maxine has seen first hand the long term impact Head Start can have. “I have spent many years with VCU Head Start; good, positive years, and I’ve seen the progression of these children,” she says. “They are all honor students or scholars. They’re excellent readers. Their attention span is good. It just prepared their minds at an early age to absorb education.”
Natasha, who’s in the fifth grade, was recently selected for an accelerated academic program. All three children earn grades marking them as school scholars. Head Start helped Sonya make a decision about her job: “They helped me redirect my focus,” she says. And she and Darryl received counseling.
Parents play an essential role in directing Head Start. Two parents from eight centers receive training and serve in the governing body of parents and community representatives. The pair helps its home center review proposed Head Start policies, which parents must approve before implementation. “All of the training that we do is excellent for the parent’s resume,” says Audrey.
“Parents really have a big voice in our program, and we train them for that from day one,” echoes Kara.
“Everybody does it because they’re truly invested in the program,” says Kara. “I consider all the Head Start children my children.”
Head Start welcomes support of any kind. They are required to match funds received from the Federal Government, but there are many ways to help. To support or volunteer, contact Kara Arceneaux at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-0100.