Diane Gerber, the center director of Azle Head Start Child Development Center, wrote to tell us the inspiring story of Allie Guzman: I was a teacher assistant at Azle Head Start Child Development Center. We were told by our head office that we would be getting a new student who had multiple disabilities. Her prognosis was very poor, with her life expectancy somewhere around 15 years. She suffered from dwarfism, a cleft pallet, scoliosis, and several other health conditions that made her unable to do anything that a normal 3 year old should be able to do, such as feed herself, go to the bathroom, walk, or talk. I remember some of the teachers talking about how much individual time it was going to take to care for this little girl, and wondering if we would be able to provide what she would surely require.
I remember the day that Alejandrina Guzman came to the center for the first time. Her parents both accompanied her. Her mom was very shy and spoke only Spanish. Her dad spoke a little bit more English; he reluctantly revealed that he had been afraid to take Alejandrina out in public because people would stare at her and point, and he was embarrassed for his daughter and his wife. Both parents were reluctant to leave their daughter at Heat Start, on her third birthday, in the care of strangers. As soon as they were told that they were welcome to stay and volunteer at the center, they were more accepting and comfortable of letting their daughter enter into the Head Start program.
Allie cried all day. Her mom worried that she cried, but a teacher, Ms. Crocker assured her that this crying was normal for a child who had never been out of her mom's and dad's care, and to please let the teachers work with her. So, every day for a month, mom would bring Allie to school, she would stay to volunteer, and Allie would cry.
The teachers all loved to work with Martha, Allie's mom. She was learning to speak English in the same classroom as her daughter. She helped out with Allie, changing her diaper and helping to feed her. Allie eventually stopped crying every day, and began to enjoy coming to school. At first, leery of the other kids due to their size as compared to hers, she was shy and would pull away from interacting with them. Soon, however, she started smiling at them and trying to communicate as best she could.
During this first year at Azle, referrals were made and appointments were scheduled with the help of Head Start, to help address some of Alejandrina's physical problems. Her cleft pallet was repaired; her legs were straightened with braces, and she had spine surgery to help with her scoliosis. Allie went to many specialists during this time, including pulmonologists and gastroenterologists to help address her breathing and eating problems due to her very small stature. At age 3 she stood only 19 inches tall, the size of a new born.
After all the surgeries, Head Start, with the assistance and support of the United Way services, then arranged for physical therapists, speech therapists, and occupational therapists to come to the center to work with Allie. That little girl learned so fast; we were all amazed. In no time at all she was walking, at first with the aid of a walker, then on her own. She learned to talk, and special adaptive equipment was brought in to assist her with feeding herself, with potty training, doing art, and being very independent.
When she left Head Start to start kindergarten, she had stolen everyone's heart, and provided an inspiration as to what could be accomplished in the face of massive challenges, with the right support by caring people, such as the teachers and support staff at Head Start, Early Childhood Intervention (ECI), The United Way, Cooks Children's Health Care System, and Shriners Hospital. Allie was reading, writing, walking, and becoming more and more self-sufficient every day. Her confidence flourished, and she was a friend to all her classmates, a helper to her teachers and an outstanding student academically as well. She was on her way, and she had a good head start.
Allie started kindergarten and she progressed quickly. The next year, when Allie was in first grade, she returned to Azle Head Start as a volunteer. She came back to her roots and she read a book to each classroom there. She urged the kids to listen to their teachers, and to read a lot. It was a precious moment, and one I will always remember. "This is why we do what we do," I remember thinking at the time.
In the next several years, Allie's mom gave birth to three boys, all of whom attended the Azle Head Start center. Martha continued to be a regular volunteer, but stayed very active in Allie's activities as well. They have all gone on to public schools now, but visit us occasionally just to keep in touch. I am now the Center Director.
Throughout the years, I often would see Allie's picture in the local paper. First, as a pep-squad member, cheering on the local football team. Then, more recently, as the senior Homecoming Queen of Azle, an honor bestowed on her by her peers.
Alejandrina Guzman graduated from Azle High School in the top 10 percent of her class. I spoke to her and her parents and asked if Allie would possibly consider being a guest speaker, as a Head Start alumnus, at the Head Start in-service training conference in August. They all readily agreed. Allie addressed the teachers, teaching assistants, support staff, and management team during the opening day of the conference. Her message to one and all was the most important thing that they could hear: "What you do does make a difference. Please keep doing what you do. I would not be standing here today, if it weren't for what I received at Head Start."
Alejandrina is now attending college to become an attorney, and is currently an intern in a law office. She wants to help fight for the rights of disabled people. She is certainly a formidable person, and one I am glad to have on my side.