Carlos Martinez, Baytown Head Start’s new health services coordinator, didn’t know he had been a Head Start student when he applied for the job.

“I graduated in 2019 from the University of Houston—Go Coogs! As soon as I graduated, COVID happened, and it was just so hard trying to find any position,” Martinez said. “And then this popped up, and I was like, ‘this is perfect!’”

Having wanted to always work in a health-related role where he could help people, Martinez applied and landed the job with Harris County Department of Education.

“I called my mom to let her know I got the position, and she’s like, ‘you know you were a Head Start student, right?’,” said Martinez. “I was like, ‘man, this is crazy. I guess it was meant to be.’ I guess I just made my way back around, and now it’s my turn to be on the other side helping other people.”

Martinez’s parents chose to enroll him at Head Start after a family member recommended the program.

“[My family only spoke Spanish], so they needed something that could help meet our needs,” he said. “I think Head Start really helped me get involved and learn English.”

Taiwan Williams, the founding center manager of the Burnett Head Start campus, sits on the other side of Martinez’s cubicle wall.

“I first met him in August of 2001 when his mom enrolled him at Burnett Head Start,” said Williams. “This time, he’s sitting next door to me in the cubicle, and he was talking on the phone, and when he got off, I was like, ‘Baby, did I hear you say you went to Burnett?’ He was like, ‘yes.’ I’m like, ‘how old are you?’ and he said ‘24,’ and I’m like, ‘oh god, you’re one of our babies. If you went to pre-K at Burnett, you’re one of our babies because we had the pre-K program.’”

The Burnett Head Start campus opened in 2001 in a portable building through a partnership between the Pasadena Independent School District and HCDE.

When asked how Williams felt when she realized Martinez was one of her former students, visible tears started to form.

“Proud. Old,” Williams said as she laughed through the tears. “I feel like I played some kind of part in helping him to develop into a human being that has empathy for people that would want to work in this field to give back in whatever kind of capacity. So every time I talk about it, I cry now because I’m just happy. I feel almost like a proud mom, but a proud Head Start mom. I’m glad he’s here. He’s going to be successful. I’m going to make sure because he’s my baby.”

With only two weeks on the job, Martinez said the experience was ‘surreal’ and added that it made him happy to see Williams’ joyful tears.

“This person was in charge of me,” he said. “Now, I’ve grown as an adult, and now I get to work alongside her and help these families and kids. It’s great to be in a work environment where people actually care. That’s all I could really ask for—a team that respects one another and wants to help families and children have a better future.”

Williams believes that Head Start instilled lifelong lessons in Martinez, which she sees in him today.

“The love of learning. He’s going through his training session process right now. With every one of his sessions, he’s asking questions, he’s inquisitive,” said Williams. “You can tell he wants to learn everything that he needs to know to be successful, and I think that started with us because we don’t play, we teach through play, and we encourage the kids to ask questions.”

“It makes me feel great. I hope I can be on the other side one day and watch someone I’ve helped grow and make me as emotional,” he says.

Taiwan replies, “You’re going to do it, baby. You had a great start.”

“I had a Head Start,” responds Martinez.

This article is republished with permission from the Harris County Department of Education.

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.

Related Content