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"I am from McIntosh, Alabama, a small town just under an hour's drive north of Mobile. It's a town where everyone knows and looks out for each other. I attended Frankie J. Briggs Head Start, as did most of the children in town. It was, and still is, one of few early childhood education centers in the area. 

My parents divorced when I was young and my mother joined the workforce. What she thought was safe and reliable child care turned out to be much more. At my Head Start program, I gained critical socialization and problem-solving skills. At the time, I was an only child, so the impact of being around peers and learning through play was immense. 

I have fond memories of my time there. My teacher's name was Ms. Christie and our classroom was bright yellow. I also remember celebrating Mardi Gras by parading through an adjacent neighborhood as my schoolmates and I pulled wagons with colorful streamers like makeshift floats.

Transitioning from Head Start to kindergarten was a social challenge for me. I was used to the intimate classroom with Ms. Christie, and the larger setting in my new school was intimidating. But I soon adjusted and soared. My elementary school identified me for the gifted and talented program, and I also won several academic awards. In high school, I was a strong student leader and athlete. My extracurricular activities included the honors program, student council, and the football and track teams.

We discussed college regularly in my home, and I saw it as my path forward. After high school, I attended Coastal Alabama Community College to get an excellent introduction to the college experience and save costs. Initially, I planned to pursue a nursing degree, but a dissection course changed that trajectory! I received an associate’s degree in general business and transferred to the University of South Alabama. There, I learned about the human resources function. Because of the advocacy component of the role, it was a natural decision for me to pursue a bachelor’s degree in it.

A couple of months after graduating in 2020, I learned about an employment opportunity with Innovative Healthcare Solutions (IHS). They provide ZONO sanitizing and disinfecting as well as Halo HEPA air purification services and equipment to schools, including Head Start programs. Once I discovered that IHS serves Head Start programs, I couldn't believe the full-circle moment. I was reencountering Head Start! The fact that I now work for a company that services the community that nurtured and gave me so much gives me enormous pride.

Head Start is necessary not only for those experiencing setbacks but also for those in preschool and child care deserts. Head Start gives opportunities and access to children who might not have them otherwise.

I have only admiration and gratitude for my Head Start experience. To my teacher, Ms. Christie, I want to say, "Thank you for taking the time to give me the tools to be successful in life and be anything I dreamed of."

Ryan Byrd

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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