Resilience: The Measure of a Man

This Head Start Awareness Month, we’re celebrating the resilience and triumph of our Head Start alumni. Masada Ellis is the fourth and final in the series. Reciting Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” as a four-year-old in Head Start inspires Masada’s daily commitment to leave a positive legacy for his children despite challenges. Thank you, Masada, for sharing your story.

There’s nothing like adversity to prove who you are. I’ve always been a strong-willed person, but having children of my own has made me laser-focused on how to use my perseverance to carve out a legacy they will be proud of. Until I enlisted in the Marine Corps at 18 years old, I lived at home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, with my mother and six sisters. Three of them were god sisters, but we were raised as biological siblings.

Like many other cities in the Deep South, Hattiesburg had an integral role in the Civil Rights Movement. It was the largest site for the Freedom Summer voting registration campaign in 1964. This historical connection isn’t lost on me when I think about how, decades later, I was four years old in Head Start, memorizing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, “I Have a Dream” speech. I often recall this memory because Dr. King is one of my heroes, and it reminds me that my Head Start teacher saw potential and capability in me beyond my years. She saw the determination in me.

Life was tough growing up. My mother, sisters, and I dealt with the persistent challenge of insufficient money, food, and no access to quality healthcare. Since I was young, I wanted to make a difference and improve the lives of those in circumstances like my family’s. I also wanted to go to college, so I joined the Marines as a path to get there.

I think it’s true that ingenuity is born of necessity. While in the Corps, I made some mistakes that resulted in time in the brig and the loss of military benefits, but I’m a fighter. I don’t believe in giving up. After my military service, I had limited resources, so I found a way to work several jobs to pay for school and earn my bachelor’s degree while supporting a young family.

When my physical disabilities made it painfully obvious that working a standard, “nine to five” job wasn’t going to work for me, I took my degree in audio engineering and my passion for music and launched a business as an event planner and songwriter. And when hard times hit my business, the memory of reciting Dr. King’s speech resurfaced. I turned to Head Start.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Head Start was pivotal in preparing my twin boys for school while my wife and I regrouped financially. It’s one thing to experience Head Start as a student, but as a parent, I gained an even deeper appreciation for the depth and scale of Head Start’s impact on families and communities. As parents, Head Start invited me and my wife into our children’s classroom. The teachers identified a speech issue with one of our boys and connected us with a speech therapist. He speaks clearly (and non-stop) now. The staff saw how engaged I was as a dad and invited me to start a fatherhood group. I also got involved with the policy council, was elected chairperson, and now I serve on the Episcopal Community Services (ECS) Board of Directors.

Today, I use all of my platforms and relationships to advocate for and promote Head Start and champion the needs of children, families, and veterans in my community, state, and nationally.

After years of making appeals, my military benefits have been partially restored, which has helped my wife and I purchase a family home. Together, we have the privilege of raising the most amazing human beings in the world. At times my circumstances have been mentally and physically debilitating, but I get up every day and keep going so my children can see that setbacks are on the flip side of success, and the two can coexist. I want them to remember me as someone who never gave up.

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.

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