Thank you to alumna Angela Groves, chief expansion officer of the Friends of the Children in Portland, OR, for sharing how her Head Start program helped to serve her family and rural community.
I keep a copy of the Dead Mountain Echo newspaper article announcing the 1982 launch of the Kids and Kin Head Start program in my birthplace of Oakridge, Oregon. I am in a photo that accompanies the article, a four-year-old little girl looking intently at the camera. When the program launched, I was living with my single mother, and was one of only 16 children selected for the program’s first cohort.
At a time when I needed it most, Head Start provided me some of my earliest and most joyful experiences. Those critical months in my development formed my first memories of playing with other children. I remember playing Farmer in the Dell in the gym and vividly recall the magic of those new social experiences. I received a copy of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” from Head Start that I cherished as a child; I was so proud of MY book, and I still have it!
While rural Oakridge was, at one time, a booming hub of the Oregon timber industry, in my toddler years the community was facing the end of the era of timber prosperity. Working in the woods as a timber faller had been my dad’s dream since childhood. He and most other adults in the community whose livelihoods were all somehow tied to timber, found themselves facing the unexpected challenge of reinventing themselves to support their families in a place where no other opportunities existed.
The local sawmill, the hub of the community, was on a pathway to closure, and Oakridge would eventually face some of the highest rates of poverty in the U.S. Data from the 2019 Census showed that, even recently, the Oakridge School District had the fifth highest poverty rate in the nation among districts with at least 100 students. Many rural communities like ours relied on timber so much that when the industry suffered, it had deep ripple effects on families, like mine, for generations.
Head Start sparked a growth mindset and spark in me that set me on a clear path in life. I am proud to have earned my bachelor’s degree in health education from Portland State University while working full-time to support myself. In those years, I also experienced medical insurance coverage for the first time in my life. After marrying and having my two boys, I eventually crossed paths with the nonprofit organization Friends of the Children, where my growth mindset, perseverance, and grit would come into play in the most meaningful way possible.
While I never expected to be a chief expansion officer of a national nonprofit, I know I was always meant to be doing this work—supporting children who are growing up in challenging situations. Being a part of our network growth from five to 32 locations over the past 10 years has been personally and professionally rewarding—providing tremendous, full-circle purpose and meaning in my life. I see each new Friends of the Children location as a milestone that will impact the trajectories of hundreds of more children.
Fueled by my own rural experience, I’m particularly passionate about ensuring that children in rural communities can experience life-changing programs like Friends of the Children and Head Start. In small, rural, and rural-tribal regions, Head Start is often the only program centered on kids and I’m inspired by their decades of dedication to children and families facing adversity.
Head Start aims to ensure children in tough circumstances aren’t left behind as they start their educational journey, and Friends of the Children can pick up the mantle to ensure many of those same children receive one-to-one professional mentoring care and support they need through high school graduation—12+ years no matter what. It’s deeply meaningful to see Friends of the Children teams across the country partner with local Head Start programs to identify and enroll program participants. Both organizations are here to change lives and I’m fortunate to be connected to each of them.
During Women’s History Month, I’d be remiss to not honor those women who have played key roles in my journey. From my mother, who took the important step to enroll me in Head Start, to female leaders and changemakers who I’ve been honored to know, walk alongside, and learn from over the years: you truly inspire me daily!