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Head Start is ‘life-changing’ for at-risk children

Each year, from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, the nation celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month, a moment to commemorate the generations of Hispanic Americans whose achievements and contributions have shaped our identity as a country.

As I reflect on the theme of this year’s celebration, “Honoring our Heritage. Building our Future,” one particular experience in my own life’s journey as a Hispanic American woman comes to mind, and that is my time at Head Start.

A comprehensive early learning program designed to break the cycle of poverty, Head Start has been life-changing for at-risk children and their families, offering culturally responsive services that are becoming more and more crucial in vulnerable Hispanic communities throughout the country.

As of last year, 38 percent of the children served by Head Start were of Hispanic or Latino origin. Head Start programs meet the diverse needs of these communities by providing a safe space for children and families, engaging parents and encouraging bilingualism to promote success.

I attended one of the earliest Head Start programs as a five-year-old girl living in a low-income neighborhood in Las Cruces, where Spanish was exclusively spoken at home and throughout most parts of the community.

Las Cruces in the 1960s was a very traditional place, and for Latina girls that meant a lot of babysitting and housecleaning, and not many expectations beyond marriage and a family – many of the girls never even graduated from high school.

It was at Head Start that I was first told I was smart, that I could go on to achieve anything I set my mind to.

The opening of the new Head Start center in Las Cruces came at a pivotal time for my family. Just after I turned five, my younger sister became so ill with meningitis that it altered her brain, causing her to become developmentally disabled. The news took a toll on our family’s spirits, especially my mother, and it seemed our once happy home had lost its joyful energy. I remember life seeming like a scary, fearful place.

It was at that time that my older brother came home with a flier introducing a new early learning program that would take place right down the street at his elementary school. After the sadness of my sister’s illness, Head Start gave me something positive to anticipate.

I still remember walking hand-in-hand with my mother as she carried my younger sister, Laura, across sandy lots filled with sagebrush and tumbleweeds on the way to school.

In the Head Start classroom we had mats to play and rest on, crafts tables where we could color or mold clay, shelves of books and delicious healthy foods that I had never encountered before.

It was heaven on earth for a young girl whose family – although I didn’t realize at the time – struggled under the weight of poverty.

Head Start truly set the trajectory for the rest of my life. To this day, my love of school and providing reports and synthesizing material can be traced to Mrs. Davenport, my Head Start teacher, perusing the bookshelf and choosing a book for me to report on in show and tell each week.

Mrs. Davenport believed in me, reinforcing a confidence and love for learning that continues to inspire me today.

I was lucky. Many of the children in my neighborhood did not attend the newly opened Head Start program, and I found myself far ahead of my peers upon starting first grade. I graduated high school with honors and was accepted to New Mexico State University to study engineering. Pursuing my lifelong love of looking at the stars, I became a rocket scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, Calif.

With a continued commitment to learning, I went on to earn a master’s degree from Stanford University in industrial engineering.

Throughout my life, I have been a passionate supporter of early childhood education because I know how different my life might have turned out without it.

Today, I serve the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanics as the Chair of the Early Childhood Subcommittee, where we work each day to ensure Hispanic children in diverse communities across the country receive the crucial early support they need to be successful later in life.

I am just one of the more than 32 million children Head Start has served over the past 50 years. So, as we celebrate the rich history of Hispanic Americans over the next 30 days, let’s also commit to building a future where every child has the early foundation they need to succeed.

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