Head Start “Opens World of Possibilities” for Mom and Daughter

The founders of Head Start have always viewed parents as critical partners in its work to educate young children. They also understood that this partnership meant parents should help decide which services would most benefit their families and those in the community. As a result, Head Start created a formal leadership and policymaking role for parents and community members called the Policy Council.

Thank you to Head Start parent, Policy Council member, and alumna Olivia Harvey for sharing her story at this year’s Parent and Family Engagement Conference Parent Policy Council dinner.

My daughter Maliya is six years old and just started kindergarten this past fall, after graduating from the Children First Head Start program in Sarasota County, Florida this past May. It’s hard to believe we’ve reached this major milestone, but with all the love, care, and guidance she receives from her incredible teachers, I’m confident that she will continue to blossom and thrive.

Children First and the Head Start program have always been close to my heart, and the hearts of my family. My husband Malik is also a proud Head Start graduate along with some members of his family. He is a wonderful support system and understands our shared mission of raising the healthiest, happiest family possible.

Our lives are centered around family, and in addition to Maliya, we also have two other children, our son Jeremiah who is 11 and our son King, who is eight. When we had our kids, we knew we didn’t have to look far to find quality, affordable childcare with amazing teachers we could trust. With the challenges we were facing, we knew we could turn to Children First’s Head Start program to help us find our path to success.

Head Start alumna Olivia Harvey (on the right) at Children First Head Start program in Sarasota County, Florida, as a child. Her daugher later attended the same program.

My family has been involved with Children First since Jeremiah was a toddler, and to this day our entire family is engaged in the resources that the agency provides.

Our Family Advocate Ernestine has been there for Maliya and our entire family every step of the way. In fact, I know that even when my daughter is in high school, Ernestine will be there in a heartbeat if we ever need anything.

The teachers care so deeply about the kids, and they never forget a face. One day, Maliya came home with a photo from her teacher, Miss LaTonda. It was a baby picture of me, because Miss LaTonda had been my teacher as well. I couldn’t believe she had kept it for all these years! It was such a special memory to share with my daughter, and it’s moments like this that let me know we will always be a part of the Children First family.

Through Head Start, I’ve also found a lot of support personally and as a parent. Due to the pandemic, I had reduced hours and was forced to seek other employment. During this time, I needed something that would allow me to feel professional and help me keep my skills up while at the same time offering me flexibility to be a mom.

Luckily, Children First was offering a Job Skills Training Course as part of the agency’s Family Strengthening services. The class was perfect because it provided a sense of accountability and belonging. I learned about identifying and overcoming obstacles related to employment, and there was a special focus on resume writing, interviews, and ‘acing’ the first 90 days at a new job, which has benefited me personally!

After a mock interview put together by my vocational family advocate Laura and her colleagues, I felt so confident with the skills that I had learned and I decided to reach for a higher goal in the workforce. I was offered a position with the Sarasota County School Board at Sarasota School of the Arts & Sciences, where I have been working as a paraprofessional since January of last year!

While working full time, I’ve also had the opportunity to go back to school to earn my bachelor’s degree with the goal of becoming a history or math teacher. My ambitions have led to being a working professional, a full-time mom, and now, a student–but I’m not stopping there. In the future, I would like to earn my master’s degree and work as an administrator, with one of my ultimate goals being to run for school board.

Because of Children First, Head Start, and my vocational coach, Laura, who has become a mentor to me, it feels like a whole new world of possibilities has opened up. While I was unexpectedly unemployed but fighting to stay engaged, I was supported every step of the way. Laura and the team at Children First continue to guide me and my family on our journey to success.

Although we still face unique challenges, I feel grateful and am so proud of how far we’ve come. Because Malik and I were able to grow and thrive in a healthy environment at the earliest stages of our lives, the lives of our children have transformed for the better.

Right now, parents, families, and caregivers are struggling financially and socially. They’re needing lower childcare prices, full workday hours with childcare coverage, and free transportation to and from the daycares.

Head Start is a changemaker for all communities. Child by child, family by family, the seeds that are sowed continue to blossom as they stretch higher and higher toward the sunshine. Their promise is simple: every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to reach their full potential.

As I look to the future–from my youngest child thriving in kindergarten, to earning my teaching degree, to raising my beautiful children alongside my husband and beyond–I know that thanks to Head Start, there is nothing to fear.

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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