Resilience: Stories of Triumph

This Head Start Awareness Month, we’re celebrating the resilience and triumph of our Head Start alumni. Dr. Shana Lachowicz, director of Child Development at Community Partnership for Child Development in Colorado Springs, CO, is the first of the series. Thank you, Dr. Lachowicz for sharing your Head Start story.

The soundtrack of my life could be “The Long and Winding Road” by the Beatles. My journey has been winding roads, a lot of steep hills, a few detours, some dead-ends, and a few instances of going the wrong way down one-way streets. But I found my way. Everything about me on paper says I should be a statistic. But instead, I recently celebrated 17 years of employment with Head Start. My son is thriving and has never been financially eligible for Head Start.

With Head Start, I have seen the power of relational support systems, I have found my love for education, and my resolve to succeed despite tragedy and turmoil has only been strengthened. Like so many others, Head Start has been integral to how I live and why I do what I do. 

Family Dynamics

My parents grew up in Yonkers, New York, and I was born in the Bronx. While I was young, my family moved to Mahopac, New York, in Putnam County. At home, I lived with my parents, older sister, and twin brother. My dad’s brother lived nearby, and my siblings and I played often and attended school with our cousins. Dad was a self-employed cabinet maker, and my mother was sick with cancer. Dad did his best to care for mom and us kids, but it wasn’t easy. So when someone told him about free preschool, he jumped at the opportunity. The preschool was Head Start.

Bittersweet Memories

Dr. Shana Lachowicz

Before starting Head Start, I remember when a woman visited us at home–my brother and I were pretty rowdy! We were running all around the house while she was there. Later, once I started working at Head Start, I learned that she was conducting an initial home visit, one of the first encounters between the Head Start staff and an enrolled family to assess home life and a family’s needs. 

My teacher was named Ms. Heather, and I remember feeling safe and cared for. I remember taking a vision screening test, identifying that I needed glasses, and my family received meals at home. Again, these are examples of Head Start services and resources I gained insight into when I was older. It wasn’t until later in life that I learned about the income qualifications for Head Start and what that meant about my family’s economic status. But while there, I only knew it was a fun place, and I got to be with my brother and cousin. Head Start was also where I met my first friend, Dana. We share a birthday and are still in touch today!

Out of all of my memories from that time, the moving-on ceremony celebrating our transition to kindergarten is one of my most beloved but bittersweet. My mother attended and saw me get my certificate that validated my readiness for school. I remember I wore a t-shirt that said, “I like me,” and mom wore a headscarf because she had lost her hair from the cancer treatment. She died soon after that event.

Time to Grow Up

Life after Head Start took many twists and turns. With my mother’s passing, I had to grow up fast. As a single dad, my father did his best to look after me and my siblings and keep a roof over our heads and food on the table, but it was hard. I had severe ADHD, which led to difficulties in school. Socially, children teased me about not having a mother. I would often lie about my mom and pretend to have one. Once I got to high school, my relationships with teachers were hit or miss. I either really connected with them, or I really didn’t. Additionally, I was smoking, drinking, and getting high–all driven by trauma. I just wanted to be numb. 

Coincidentally and fortuitously, during my senior year of high school, I interned at the Westchester Community Opportunity Program (WestCOP) Head Start in an early intervention classroom. This experience ignited something in me. I decided to go into early childhood education. After high school, I moved toward that goal by enrolling in a community college. Unfortunately, my struggles with drugs and alcohol followed me onto campus, and I was expelled. 

Despite these challenges, I was determined to move forward. I returned to WestCOP Head Start as an assistant. With Head Start’s support, I re-enrolled in school, this time at Westchester Community College in Valhalla, New York, and received my associate’s degree. Head Start invested in me and enabled me to stay in school financially. I stayed with the WestCOP program for three years.

I was able to find my way again and became more stable and responsible at this point in my life. I wanted to expand my knowledge as an early childhood educator. I took a job at a pediatric rehabilitation center for medically fragile children. Working there gave me experience working with children with complex medical needs, something I draw from to this day.

Not a Statistic

Dr. Shana Lachowicz with her father and siblings.

Good things were happening for me. I was accepted at New York University (NYU) to complete my bachelor’s degree and dreamed of working for the famed Bank Street School. Then, September 11 happened. I also learned that NYU would only accept half of my transfer credits. I rethought my plans and hit the road with my girlfriend, searching for a new path.

A few years and road trips later, I resettled in Colorado, obtained a bachelor’s degree, and started with the Community Partnership for Child Development (CPCD) in Colorado Springs, where I work today.

As an early childhood educator, my experience runs the gamut from teacher, coach, and supervisor to director, and today, I manage almost 300 staff members. I’ve obtained a master’s and doctoral degree. I’m blessed to still have my dad around and he also relocated to Colorado. He works for CPCD as a transportation technician. After some dark times, we’re both in a really good place. Our family has made significant positive gains within one generation. 

A Winding Road Still Has a Destination

Head Start initiates the first leg of a journey to self-sufficiency through access to high-quality early education, medical and dental screenings, supportive relationships, home visits, and employment development. Some diminish and even attempt to dismiss Head Start’s power and place in the fight to decrease poverty. What detractors fail to grasp is that just because the journey is a winding road, that doesn’t make the destination unreachable. I’m living proof.

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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