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Sean Flannagan

–  Sean Flannagan, former Head Start student, Rocky Mountain, VA

Adult Sean Flannagan with his mother

Just a few years ago, you had to drag Sean Flannagan onto the school bus and into his Head Start classroom kicking and screaming. "If you love me, you won't make me go!" he would cry to his mother. Now he stops by Head Start regularly to show love to his former teacher, Shirley Wells, and to share news of his personal milestones and accomplishments. Sometimes, he makes a special trip to drop off clothes and shoes for the less fortunate kids.

At 17, this once shy and fearful child will soon become an Eagle Scout. His project, building wall-length cabinets for the Patrick Henry Volunteer Fire Department in Patrick Springs, is just one manifestation of the responsible, caring young man he has become.

He credits much of that to his experience at Head Start. "It gave me a jump start when I was going into kindergarten," he said. "I had already had interaction with other kids and knew how to do lots of stuff;" the other children were just learning. Having enrolled in Head Start when he was 4, Flannagan learned the alphabet and numbers and could sound out words and read a little. He was introduced to computers, participated in fields trips, and could recite his own address and phone number.

Most importantly, according to his mother, Tina Flannagan, he learned how to be independent. When he was at home, he was a vivacious, confident child, she said. "But when he was not with family, he was not very outgoing." She laughs as she tells about the time when Sean was struggling against Wells as she tried to bring him into the school. "Mrs. Wells says, 'It will be alright.' He's got her down on the ground in the parking lot and he's hanging on to her hair and she says, 'Tell Mommy you love her!' She never quit smiling."

Head Start is offered in Patrick and Franklin counties by STEP, Inc. (Solutions That Empower People), a community action agency. Head Start enrolls 4- and 5-year-olds, and Early Head Start is available for infants through 3 years old. The focus of the programs is on school readiness for children in low-income families.

Wells, now the Early Head Start program manager in Patrick County, said that once Flannagan became accustomed to being away from home and his mother, he flourished. "Once he got over his mom leaving him, he quickly embraced the Head Start learning environment. I loved seeing his little face light up when I would sing with the class, read a story, or share any new experience. He learned very quickly that the classroom was an environment where he could feel safe and it was okay to explore. He was a fast learner, which made him a leader and he loved being a leader," she said.

Young Sean Flannagan with momWhen he started at Head Start, Flannagan had a speech problem. His mother remembers that Wells pointed out that his writing was especially large and that he separated words in odd places. Later, the Flannagans discovered that Sean registered on the autism spectrum, but toward the bottom of the scale. "Head Start brought it out that something wasn't quite right," Tina Flannagan said. It turns out he has a learning disability, an oral language disorder. Math is a particular challenge for him.

Still, Flannagan's mother says that through Head Start he gained confidence and made friends. She saw him branch out and blossom. Sean and his classmates discovered both similarities and differences between them, and they learned to be accepting of each other. "He still has lasting friendships with those Head Start kids. One is an usher in the church. Several of his Head Start friends graduated from high school a year early. A number of them are in Junior Beta. Some graduated with honors. Most of them are doing pretty well," she said.

Flannagan will be a senior at Patrick County High School this year and wants to become a welder after he graduates. He likes working with his hands. In addition to the Boy Scouts, he is on the track and field team at school and plays the baritone saxophone in the marching band. He works odd jobs to help with family finances and buys his own school clothes. He works hard to keep his grades up.

Both Wells and Flannagan's mother say that Head Start laid the groundwork for Sean to be who he is today. "My experience with Sean and his family is a wonderful example of how programs like Head Start truly can be that added support to assure our children are school-ready," Wells said. Tina Flannagan refutes claims she's heard that Head Start is just a babysitting service. "We were surprised. Head Start is just like school," she said.

Solutions That Empower People, or STEP, Inc., serves over 3,000 of our friends and neighbors in the community. Together with our partner agencies, we employ sustainable strategies that address both the symptoms and the root causes of poverty. We take our mission and our relationships with our clients personally, as we all work together to help each individual realize their fullest potential!