Head Start Stories

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Since 1965, Head Start has served millions of children and families by promoting school readiness, by providing comprehensive services, and by emphasizing the role of parents as their child's first and most important teacher. These are the stories of how Head Start has impacted the lives of the children, parents, neighbors, and staff that have been involved in its programs.

Levesta Deere

"My motto is never quit learning, even when you have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel." Levesta Deere, assistant teacher at Crossroads Youth & Family Services' Learning Tree Head Start/Early Head Start Center, Shawnee, OK

Lavesta Deere GraduatesSpring is a time when thousands of eager young graduates march across the stage to accept their college diplomas. It's also a time when folks of a more mature age may feel the pangs of regret, because life has gotten in the way of their pursuing a college degree. The pressures of work, marriage, children, and a thousand other things have a way of doing that. Such was the case for Levesta Deere, an assistant teacher at Crossroads Youth & Family Services' Learning Tree Head Start/Early Head Start Center in Shawnee, OK. All that changed, however, when Levesta graduated at the age of 66 with an associate's degree in Child Development from Seminole State College, and participated this year in its commencement ceremony on May 10, 2014, after hoping for 48 years to be able to do so.

The intervening years, since she began her mission to be a college graduate, were busy ones, and they also had their share of sorrow. She graduated from Porter Public Schools in 1966, married her late husband Jessie Deere, and had a daughter, Jessica. She lost her husband, and then lost her job, when the daycare center she worked for went out of business. She has had to battle a serious health problem. But fate intervened for Levesta and for Crossroads Youth & Family Services. Levesta was one of the first employees hired when Crossroads assumed sponsorship of the Head Start Program in Pottawatomie, Cleveland, and Seminole Counties in 2003 (Comanche County followed in 2006). She now has a granddaughter, Lauren, and a great grandson, Jessie, who attends Early Head Start at Learning Tree. She also credits her brother, Tommy Lewis, for his encouragement and help along the way.

A colleague and education coordinator for Crossroads, Terrie Vicknair, had this to say about Levesta when she nominated her for special recognition: "Levesta respects and provides individual care to each child as if he were the only one in her classroom. She had one little boy in her class who had to be placed in foster care outside the county and no longer would have Levesta as his teacher. When he commented that he would miss her, she drew an imaginary star on his forehead with her finger and said, 'Now every time I look at the night sky and see the stars, I will think of you.' She gave a child, seemingly alone in the world, a sense of belonging to someone. This is typical of Levesta, because the children in her care mean everything to her."

As Deere explained, "I was as slow as a turtle in finishing my degree, but I did it! I failed biology in 1966 and promised myself to pass it before I died. That was the last class I needed in order to get my degree. My motto is never quit learning, even when you have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. The best antidote for failure is to succeed."

"I want to thank Crossroads and Seminole State College for the warmth and encouragement they gave me to finish," Deere continued. "There is a season for everything, and my first dream was to see my daughter and granddaughter graduate. Now, it was my turn."

"This attitude exemplifies Levesta's personal drive and commitment to the agency. She is an outstanding employee and a gifted teacher. Her newest accomplishment illustrates one of the cornerstone values of our agency, which is the importance of lifelong learning," said Lisa Winters, executive director of Crossroads Youth & Family Services. "We are lucky to have her." Levesta credits Head Start with helping her achieve her lifelong dream—being a college graduate. The achievement of lifelong dreams and the practice of lifelong learning are part of the legacy of the Head Start Program, a legacy approaching a half a century of excellence.

Greg Cantori

"Just think, nearly 50 years later, the program remains true to its mission with tens of millions of children getting a real Head Start in their young lives!" Greg Cantori, president and CEO of Maryland Nonprofits, Chicago, IL

1965 Head Start CertificateToday, I write as the president and CEO of Maryland Nonprofits, one of the largest state associations of nonprofits in our nation.

Of the many certificates, awards, and diplomas on my office wall, I'm most proud of my 1965 Head Start certificate of completion. I now know that I was among the lucky ones who was recruited and attended one of the very first Head Start classes in 1965.

Our eight-week class took place where the Human Services Department now stands on 63rd and Drexel Ave., in Chicago, IL. How do I know that? Well, my wonderful mom remembers it so well, that she even has the address memorized some 50 years later! She told me how the staff went door-to-door looking for the first Head Start kids to participate.

It boggles my mind how organized and challenging that must have been to get a new program like this off the ground, on a such a national scale, with only months of planning and with no internet, emails, or computers. I honestly don’t remember much of my experience as a 5 year old, other than the large pipes in the basement ceiling and the warmth and care we all received.

So, why am I so proud of my certificate?

It represents all that is just and good in putting children and families absolutely first and foremost. It represents the incredible cooperation, partnerships, and dedication between elected officials, public servants, teachers, parents, and staff. It represents a key moment where Lyndon B. Johnson said: "Here and now, we declare unconditional war on poverty in America." It represents and celebrates the wonderful diversity of the classmates I spent eight weeks with. And it represents the sense of gratitude and success of its holder. Just think, nearly 50 years later, the program remains true to its mission with tens of millions of children getting a real Head Start in their young lives! This is what our younger generation says needs a "shout out"—that is, Head Start is Awesome!

Irma Morin

"Many can attest to the amount of impact that this agency has had in their lives and my family is one of those thousands and thousands of families out there." Irma Morin, Executive Director of the Community Council of Idaho, Inc., Caldwell, ID

Woman working in the fieldIf someone were to ask me at the age of five what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wouldn't imagine myself saying that I would be the executive director for Idaho's largest nonprofit serving Latinos. The path that I took for a career revolved around the wonderful experiences I had with, what was formerly known as, the Idaho Migrant Council, and now Community Council of Idaho, Inc. Many can attest to the amount of impact that this agency has had in their lives and my family is one of those thousands and thousands of families out there. As a child, I was enrolled at "De Colores Head Start Center" which at the time was located at Lakeview Park in Nampa, ID. At the time, my family didn't know that our roots with this agency would not end at a Head Start Center.

As a migrant family, my family and I continued our journey to Lodi, CA alongside other farmworkers. I myself began working in the fields at the age of 11. Throughout my childhood, what I defined as the hardest jobs in the world was that of farmworkers. As a migrant farmworker child and as one of many across the United States, I dealt with the challenges of consistency in my education. It wasn't until my family decided to make Idaho their home that I was able to begin to build a connection with a community. I had the opportunity to expand the world I had known. With the support of my parents, I challenged myself in every way I could. The vision of my parents seeing me walk down the aisle with a college graduation cap and diploma was the ultimate gift I could give my parents for all that they had done for me.

My journey in achieving this goal was not easy but, through the assistance of Community Council of Idaho, Inc., I was able to pay for tuition and textbooks throughout my undergraduate career. In 1992, I was able to walk down the aisle when I received my Bachelor of Science in accounting from Boise State University. Following my graduation, I knew what I wanted to do: Give back to the agency that had done so much for me. I did exactly that when I applied for a position at the Community Council of Idaho, Inc.

When I speak to my parents of the major impact that Community Council of Idaho, Inc. programs have in the state of Idaho all that can be seen is a big smile. They are not smiling because of the title I hold with this agency but, instead, they are so proud of the little girl who grew up to dedicate her life to expanding the services that farmworkers and low-income populations once never had or dreamed of having.

I couldn't have made it this far without the ongoing support of my beloved husband of 19 years and my three loving children.

My commitment to this agency has not changed as I continue to find ways to better serve the needs of Idaho's Latinos and low-income populations.

Keisha Warner

"I was able to see the results and believe the Head Start program makes a REAL difference." Keisha Warner, Head Start graduate and teacher, Washington, DC

portrait of Keisha WarnerIn the early 1970's, I was enrolled in Head Start at the Katie C. Lewis Elementary School in Washington, DC where my mom taught kindergarten. Of course, I don't remember being in Head Start but I have pictures of field trips taken with my Head Start classmates ... fast forward to 1995.

I had reached a point in my life and career where I wanted to "make a difference." I applied to teach Head Start in the District of Columbia Public Schools. While teaching Head Start full time, I earned a Master's Degree in Elementary Education from Trinity College. During that time, I enrolled my daughter, Kaila, in Head Start at Noyes Elementary also located in Washington, DC— and my mom, a kindergarten teacher joined the Head Start family as a Head Start teacher at Clarke Elementary School. After 35 years of teaching, she retired from the District of Columbia Public Schools in 1999.

Kaila just completed her 10th grade year at Phelps ACE on Honor Roll. She received an Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) Scholarship which allowed her to participate in the 2013 Summer Science and Engineering Program at Smith College located in Northampton, MA for five weeks. Kaila plans to join ROTC in college. She would like to become an officer in the United States Military. Two generations of Head Start teachers and two generations of Head Start students!

Last year was my first year in 16 years not teaching Head Start. I taught Pre-Kindergarten. Some people would ask "What's the big deal?" The 'big deal' (and the big difference) is Head Start's holistic approach and the positive impact it made in the lives of children and families. I was able to see the results and believe the Head Start program makes a REAL difference!

Evelyn Gold Leger

"My love for Head Start has opened so many doors." Evelyn Gold Leger, Head Start graduate and teacher, Las Vegas, NM

Evelyn Leger sitting in a meetingI have been a resident of Las Vegas, NM all my life. I attended West Las Vegas Head Start as a child and I graduated May 26, 1974 and have many fond memories of Head Start.

My Head Start teacher's name was Rosie Armijo and she is also native of Las Vegas, NM. I had the privilege of visiting with Rosie last spring and we reminisced about how Head Start has been so powerful in school readiness. I explained to Rosie that all she taught me was very valued in my life.

I remember Rosie playing her accordion and that would start my day with much joy and happiness. I remember learning numbers and the alphabet, writing my name, and story time was always my favorite part of the day. I also have a very fond memory of going on a field trip to the Albuquerque Zoo. I remember wearing overalls and a very pretty orange shirt. After the field trip, I got off the school bus so tired and still remember how Rosie talked about all the animals and all we saw at the zoo.

Rosie was very loving and caring. I thanked her for playing such a positive part in my life. I always knew in my heart that someday I would want to be a Head Start teacher. I had such a love for it. I wanted to be the best teacher and supporter to my children and families.

Today, Head Start is a great tool in preparing our children for school readiness. I have educated and supported many families. Head Start is the best program that supports children and families when it comes to school readiness. My love for Head Start has opened so many doors. I take pride in working with children and families.

Jorge Avendano

"I know that the most important gift I can give to my children is my time." Jorge Avendano, Father of the Year at Davis/Morgan/Summit Head Start-Early Head Start, Kaysville, UT

A father about to kiss his young daughterBeing the best father I can be is very important to me. Even after a long day of work, I make sure to spend one-on-one time with both of my children. When I work at night, I make sure to call at bedtime to wish my daughter Amariah, sweet dreams and sing to her one of my favorite songs from my childhood. One of my favorite things to do with my kids is to cuddle and read stories. I know that the most important gift I can give to my children is my time.

My father left us when I was 3. So, when I was growing up, I believed it was the father's job to provide for the family. It wasn't until I attended the Head Start fatherhood class that I realized that there was so much more to being a good dad. I saw that we needed to spend more time together and reprioritize my life. Because of that class, I got more interested in the day-to-day activities of my daughter and became more involved with her. I make it a priority now to take the day off from work to be with her in class and attend activities.

Kimberly P. Johnson

"Head Start empowered me to be a leader." Kimberly P. Johnson, Head Start graduate and Children's Book Author, Shelby, NC

Bonificia R. Riedel

"Head Start taught me so much about parenting, early childhood development, and most important, about myself and my abilities." Bonificia R. Riedel, former Head Start parent and current Head Start administrator, Cheyenne, WY

A woman smilingA blue toothbrush, a comb and a balloon. I still remember my Head Start teacher giving me those wonderful gifts more than 40 years ago. They meant so much to a child who had so little.

My father was an alcoholic and our family often struggled for the bare necessities, such as food and electricity. My mom had little time or energy to guide me and my six siblings. As a result, I never felt smart. I simply learned to accept what I thought were my shortcomings.

When I became a parent, Head Start helped me see beyond my insecurities. After I enrolled the last of my children in Head Start, I decided to go to college. I was so scared. I sat in the reception area of our local community college for an hour before I asked for help. The Head Start staff helped me choose classes and navigate financial aid. They kept me going every time I felt like dropping out.

When I graduated from nursing school I became a Head Start health coordinator. I kept getting promoted but I was still shocked when they asked me to interview for the Head Start director position. I was beside myself when I got the job! I love what I do.

Thanks to Head Start, my own son entered public school three years ahead in reading and writing skills. He is in college now. My eyes tear up when I see what an incredible young man he has grown to be. Head Start taught me so much about parenting, early childhood development, and most important, about myself and my abilities.

I cannot begin to express the good fortune that Head Start has brought to my life and my entire family. My heart is full of pride as I share my Head Start story.

Jesus A. Valdovinos

"(They) made sure I earned my high school diploma. That may not seem like such a big deal, but my family was homeless at the time so it was quite an accomplishment." Jesus A. Valdovinos, Head Start graduate and current Head Start administrator, Ruskin, FL

A smiling man and woman sitting on a couch hold two children in their lapsWhen I was a boy and my family wasn't following the tomato season along the East Coast, I was enrolled in a Migrant Head Start center in Florida. I remember the classrooms and the joyful noises coming from those classrooms. Most of all I remember the songs that were sung by teachers. Those experiences gave me a taste for learning and using new words and an appreciation for reading. After we settled down in Ruskin, a suburb of Tampa, FL, my family continued to work in the fields. I stayed in the RCMA after-school program for migrant and rural children until the third grade. A few years later, I returned to volunteer in the RCMA teen program. Some of the organizers made sure I earned my high school diploma. That may not seem like such a big deal, but my family was homeless at the time so it was quite an accomplishment.

But then my mentor told me, "Your job is not done yet. You need to go to college." The RCMA program even lent me the money for my college application. A few years down the line, my mentor asked if I wanted to volunteer again. I agreed, and when a tutor position opened up I applied and was hired. I worked as a RCMA tutor for a few years. Then I applied to become the Center Coordinator. By the time I received the position I had finished my bachelor's degree from the University of South Florida. A few years passed and I was ready for new challenge. I became the Family Support Specialist for child care programs in the Wimauma area and enrolled at Hodges University to earn my master's degree. The people at RCMA are still helping me, and I'm still seeing the results of the "Head Start" I had as a child.

Maranda Shepherd

"When Sarah first went to school, she hardly talked. Now she's talking, singing, and dancing." Maranda Shepherd, Head Start parent, Wheeling, WV

A smiling womanI'd like to share how Early Head Start is helping me and my children, Sarah, age 2, and Nevaeh, 4 months. Sarah likes to play outside with the other children and gets along well with them. She learned "gentle hands" at Head Start and no longer hits. When she first went to school, she hardly talked. Now she's talking, singing, and dancing. Through the Early Head Start Program, Sarah is learning her ABC's, too. Nevaeh is learning to sit up. She is already trying to crawl and is holding her head up on her own! Early Head Start is amazing. They're teaching my children and helping them excel.

They're also giving me the opportunity to get things done for myself. I have signed up for my GED and am working on getting my own apartment. Our family has experienced some tough times, and I feel good knowing that my daughters are safe and secure at school. There are two great teachers in each room. I am confident that my children are getting the proper care and attention. Sarah can even see her little sister through her classroom window, which she loves! I'm also getting support from the YWCA Family Violence Prevention Program. Through the Y and Early Head Start, I have the chance to provide the kind of life my children and I deserve. I can never thank these programs enough for helping me through this time in my life.

Melvena Wilkerson

"As a parent volunteer, I have acquired more professional skills than I have gained at any job." Melvena Wilkerson, former Head Start parent, Detroit, MI

A smiling boyI am a proud to be part of Head Start. My two children, Kevina and Kevin, attended The Order of the Fishermen Ministry Head Start. They are doing exceptionally well in school, and I know it's because they went to Head Start. As a parent volunteer, I have acquired more professional skills than I have gained at any job. I have learned to communicate more effectively as an advocate for our children. I have also learned the importance of knowing the law and adhering to it. The information that governs Head Start has helped me to be a better-equipped parent. I have participated in Leadership Trainings, and I learned how to conduct meetings through Head Start Program Governance. The opportunity has allowed me the ability to joyfully share all I know with families. HEAD START WORKS!

Sheena Prince

"Head Start was my only chance for an early childhood education." Sheena Prince, Head Start graduate, Oxon Hill, MD

A smiling woman and child standing together in a classroomAs a young child growing up in the nation's capital, I had the opportunity to attend Head Start at the Peace Lutheran Church in Southeast Washington, DC. I am an individual with special needs and a psychiatric disability and my family was on hard times, so Head Start was my only chance for an early childhood education. After my parents divorced, I suffered separation anxiety and problems adjusting to new environments. Head Start provided a place where I could acquire the fundamental, critical skills of early learning and socialization. It prepared me to enter kindergarten with a reading-comprehension level far above most students in my age group. I became an extremely advanced learner whose placement always posed a challenge to school staff and officials. As I reached high school, it was apparent that I had academic strengths that surpassed my peers.

But I faced many challenges, often due to the educational system's failure to offer good alternatives to students with exceptional learning needs. I feel that some changes are urgently needed to ensure that all children receive a quality education. My main mission in life is to advocate for improvements within the special education sector. I am working toward earning a degree in Early Childhood Education. I would like to help students in early intervention special needs programs have the rich educational background that every child, regardless of ability, deserves just as I received in Head Start.


Last Reviewed: April 2013

Last Updated: February 18, 2015