Families Experiencing Poverty on Journey to Financial Stability

Photograph by NHSA/Keith Dunlop
Photograph by NHSA/Keith Dunlop

Family Service Worker Michelle Myers has seen firsthand how Early Head Start helps families experiencing poverty lift themselves out of poverty once they have the resources and support they need to reach their goals.

“Having at least one trusting and supportive person can make a world of difference,” she says.

As a family service worker with the Community Action Partnership’s (CAP) Thrive to Five initiative, Michelle says she helps families determine and achieve their goals, stays in regular contact with families, assists with program logistics, like enrollment, and advocates for families by serving as a liaison with child care centers or others as needed.

“My top priority is to make sure families feel heard and respected while also providing the support they need,” says Myers, who works for the Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 (IU13), which partners with CAP to deliver Early Head Start Services. “My goal is to always establish a trusting relationship with each family and be present with them.”

Stable, affordable, high-quality child care is essential to families’ economic stability. Consistent, high-quality care allows parents and caregivers to work and provides learning opportunities for children during a critical window for brain development.

In fact, stable, high-quality child care helps generate an additional $94,000 in lifetime earnings for mothers and improves labor productivity for parents so they miss fewer work days and can pursue further education. Yet for low-wage workers and families experiencing poverty, the cost of child care forces parents to choose between staying out of the workforce or enrolling their children in care that is low-quality or unstable.

CAP, which serves Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, launched Thrive to Five in 2019. Thrive to Five combines CAP’s child care program and the traditional Head Start program, allowing families who participate in Early Head Start, Head Start, Pre-K Counts, child care subsidies, and private pay programs to participate. The initiative has the capacity to support 900 children.

Thrive to Five aligns birth-to-age-five programming throughout Lancaster County—a large, mostly rural county that encompases 16 school districts—and allows parents and caregivers to access resources.

“By design, Thrive to Five is meant to support working families on their footpath out of poverty to financial stability,” says Thrive to Five Director Stacy Lewis. “I think what’s unique about our approach is supporting families where they are.”

Stacy says families in the program receive wraparound support so they can pursue work, go back to school, secure housing, or whatever they most need. Through Thrive to Five, families are connected with a family service worker, like Michelle, who conducts a strengths-based assessment and helps families set and meet their goals by building a trusting, warm relationship with families they serve.

“Each family’s journey to self sufficiency is unique. The family self identifies what they want to work on,” Stacy says.

For infants, toddlers, and children, Thrive to Five offers predictable, high-quality care and learning environments during a critical window for brain development, Stacy says.

Mother Caryliz DeJesus found out about Thrive to Five and Early Head Start through a teacher in her children’s classroom.

She says she loves seeing how their son and daughter, Ahzir and Ahvyanë, continuously learn new things at their school. One example is the school’s garden, which helps teach the children about agriculture and helps to develop life skills.

“I love how they have a garden where the kids can learn how food grows and actually see their own fruits and veggies grow,” Caryliz says.

Thrive to Five also supported the family through serious financial difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic—something that nearly 40 percent of American households have experienced since March 2020.

“When the whole world was going through a very difficult time, CAP and Thrive to Five provided an accessible pantry to all families experiencing poverty and helped me provide crafts for my kids,” Caryliz says.

Overall, Caryliz says Thrive to Five is helping her and other families stay in the workforce and become financially stable.

“Thrive to Five providing children with an amazing learning program while allowing parents to work and be members of this society,” she says.

Michelle says she learns as much as she can about each family she works with so that she can help them to prioritize what is most important to them.

“We work together to identify strengths and current stressors and determine what supports are needed. I remind families that a lot of goals are ongoing and to not be discouraged if something is not completed right away,” she says.

For Michelle, seeing families accomplish their goal—whether it’s to further their education, reunify with a child, or land a job they want—is inspiring.

Stacy says she often hears that Thrive to Five, Early Head Start or Head start was “the decisive factor in our life.”

“I know people personally who were the recipients of Early Head Start and Head Start as children who’ve told me they wouldn’t be the person they are today without it,” she says. “And so often, I hear that we are the only resource that some parents have on their journey as a parent. I think it’s important to just really understand the power of this experience and how it resonates.”

Early Head Start

This post is one in a series of features about Early Head Start programs across the country. Early Head Start helps families navigate and access the comprehensive, wraparound support they need during the most critical years of their children’s development—prenatal to age three. When all families are able to build a strong foundation for their children, we all have a brighter, healthier future. To help ensure all parents and caregivers have access to Early Head Start support, visit go.nhsa.org/EHS-advocacy to learn more and become an advocate.

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