Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

May 12, 2013

Beyond the child

Head Start focuses on lifting families from poverty.

By Lindsey Ziliak
Tribune staff writer

— There once was a mother who struggled to care for her children the way she wanted because she never graduated from high school.

One day she enrolled her kids in Kokomo Area Head Start. And while the teachers taught her children, other staff members taught her.

They pushed her to get her GED. Some days it was difficult, so they helped her. Then, after she earned her GED, they encouraged her to aim even higher.

Today that woman is working toward a nursing degree at Ivy Tech Community College. She works part time at the college as she takes classes.

She told the staff at Head Start they helped her believe in herself and in the idea that her life could be better.

Program director Julie Worland told that story on a recent afternoon.

“She gave us a lot of credit,” Worland said, shaking her head as she did.

That’s just a part of what Head Start does every day, she said.

For 48 years, its mission has been the same – to prepare low-income children for kindergarten.

Of course that means teaching those kids their ABCs and how to write their names, count and even formulate a hypothesis in science class.

But Worland said some of the most important lessons might actually happen outside the classrooms and with the parents instead of the students.

These are lessons that touch whole communities.

“We help the parents realize they’re their child’s first teacher,” she said. “They’re the ones with them every day and through the night.”

Parents have to continue where the teachers leave off. That means helping with homework and reading to their children, Worland said.

Head Start staff go into houses and help families set up home libraries. They assist them in signing up for library cards if they don’t know how.

Sometimes, though, families have immediate needs that have to be met before parents can think about teaching or children can think about learning, said Sue Bond, family advocacy specialist for Kokomo Urban Outreach.

Maybe there’s no food in the refrigerator at home, or maybe there’s not even a place to call home.

“Those basic needs have to be met for that child to move forward,” she said. “If a child’s hungry, they can’t focus. There’s going to be behavior problems.”

In 2012, 39 of Kokomo’s Head Start families experienced homelessness at some point during the year. Twelve of those families found housing during the enrollment year, according to a program information report made public in September.

The Head Start staff helped find food, clothing or shelter for 289 families in crisis last year. Eleven of the program’s families received housing assistance during that school year.

Those are all short-term solutions. Head Start’s real goal is to make sure these things never happen again, Worland said.

She talked on more than one occasion about breaking the cycle of poverty. It’s a cycle many families have been stuck in for generations, she said.

It can be changed. And it starts at the home.

One of the first things Head Start staff members do every year is visit the homes of their students. They talk to families and have them establish goals for themselves.

Maybe there are parents who want to learn how to budget so they can afford to feed their children, Worland said. Maybe some parents want to earn their GED so they can finally help with their kids’ homework.

Kokomo Area Head Start helped 57 parents with adult education courses last year. They also helped 39 with job training.

Worland said parents have sought help in filling out applications and building resumes. They’ve even helped a few get their driver’s license.

Those things are important, said Dave Barnes, director of communications for Kokomo-Center Schools, which oversees the Head Start program.

“We’re making some of the parents employable,” he said. “Every time you do that, you’re making better citizens.”

That trickles down to the children, too.

Bond said kids learn what they see. If they see their parents achieving more in their lives, they’re more likely to set their own sights higher.

If you help one generation escape poverty, she said, they will help the next one escape, too.

It’s not like these families are looking for a free ride, either, Bond said. Most of them want the help. Most have a great desire to learn, work and care for their families, she said.

Elisabeth Fletcher was once afraid of sending her children to Head Start because of the stigma she thought would come with it.

She was sure she would be judged because she couldn’t afford to send her children to preschool.

“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said.

The staff made her feel like she could go to them with any problems she had, she said.

And she could. That’s exactly what Head Start’s about, said Dawn McGrath, director of programs for Kokomo-Center Schools.

It’s a welcoming place, she said.

“This is a place that cares about kids even outside the school day,” she said. “This is also a place for excellence, a place that meets the needs of a diverse community. Whatever the families need, we’ll figure it out.”


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