For so many, Head Start is a bridge to dreams and opportunities. Read how Head Start helped alumna Yulonda Y. Thomas on her journey to supporting children and families.

I credit Head Start for giving me a smooth transition to kindergarten and drawing me to the field of early childhood education. In 1974, I attended Fidelity Head Start in Houston, Texas. I remember a welcoming learning environment with a lot of reading, singing, building, nutritious meals, and growing vegetables–my grandfather would share fresh vegetables and figs from our garden with teachers and parents. Head Start sparked my love for learning and reading. In fact, at four years old, my mother and grandparents were shocked when I started reading the street names aloud during car rides!

Having my children attend Head Start was pivotal to helping me pursue my dream of being a teacher and putting me on a path to a job I love. At that time, I served as a policy council alternate, and in that role, I learned about performance standards. That learning experience prompted me to pursue a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential. Once I attained the CDA program, I became an Early Head Start teacher. The center director quickly promoted me to Lead Teacher thanks to the relationships I built with the children and their families. It didn’t seem like I was doing anything extraordinary. I just did what I learned in my classes–create a quality and intentional classroom experience.

Through my quality experiences with Head Start, I worked in several capacities, from Early Head Start teacher to Family Community Partnership manager. Currently, I serve the children, families, and community in metro Atlanta as a Family Support advocate at Easter Seals of North Georgia. I never saw myself as a leader, but that’s what I am, thanks to Head Start. It’s an honor to help families enroll for Head Start services as well as provide support for them to set and reach their goals toward a better life.

My greatest joy on this journey is when I am in the community and former students and occasionally their siblings surprise me by grabbing me for a hug. I can’t believe they still remember me! I guess I shouldn’t be shocked. Head Start is hard to forget.

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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