This blog is adapted from Tameka Henry’s remarks on January 25 at the Aspen Forum on Children and Families, which brought together policymakers, parents, practitioners, researchers, and philanthropists to lift up a set of solid ideas for investing in the economic stability and educational success of children and families.
When I was 21, I gave birth to my first child Tre’Vaughn. At the time I was working 2 jobs to support him. 8 months after I gave birth, Tre’Vaughn passed away from SIDS. When he died, I became depressed and hopeless and as a result, I lost both of my jobs.
Months later I had my second son, Zion. I knew in order for him to be successful he needed to go to a quality pre-school, but I had so much trouble letting him out of my sight. I tried to get him into Head Start, but the waiting list was just too long. So I taught him myself until he was ready to go off to kindergarten. When Zion’s started kindergarten he was intellectually prepared. However, not being taught in a pre-school setting had a big impact on his social and emotional growth.
When it became time for my daughter, Za’ni, to start preschool I decided to apply to Head Start again. She was also placed on a waiting list. Determined, every day when I would drop Zion off at school, I would check and see if Za’ni had moved up on the waiting list. Every time the receptionist would tell me “She’s not at the top!” After a month of my daily check-ins, the receptionist finally said “She can start tomorrow”.
Once Za’Ni was finally enrolled, I would drop her off in the morning then immediately go home to my couch and mope about how hard life was. Although years had passed, I still missed Tre’Vaughn terribly. People told me it was time to “get over it” and “move on”, but that’s easier said than done.
One day when I was dropping Za’Ni off, our family advocate, Naomi, asked me “What do you do after you drop Za’Ni off?” I told her that I just go home, and she suggested I stay and volunteer in Za’Ni’s classroom. So I began to volunteer 3 days a week. Naomi then invited me to be on the parent committee and policy committee at the center. When I first joined I was clueless about what the committee’s even do. However, I quickly learned the important role of parents in Head Start. We worked on everything from budgets and curriculum, to food menus, hires, and termination. Most importantly, I learned how to advocate for my children. Being in this role of leadership helped me not only help my children, but also help other families find their voice.
Naomi helped me set goals for myself, and even suggested I go to college. I was hesitant about this. Neither of my parents completed college, and my mother always emphasized the importance of getting a secure government job. I knew I needed to work to support my family, but it was hard because I was feeling so depressed. Naomi helped me by referring me to different counseling agencies and a resource binder filled with everything from college applications to food pantries. Having the initial referral was great but having someone to hold me accountable was life changing.
Suddenly, I was on the fast track to getting my associates degree. However, 2 months before my graduation I got denied for SNAP benefits. They told me in order to get benefits I needed to quit college and start working. They suggested I enroll in cosmetology school. I was in shock. Was I really expected to drop out of school, when I am so close to graduating? Was I really supposed to give up a degree that would give me higher earning potential? I couldn’t do it. I went back to family advocacy with my dilemma, and they referred me to the resource binder I had received when I first applied to college. In it I found food pantries that would help feed my family. So I denied SNAP, and finished college.
Today when I look back on the past and see how far my family has come, I can’t help but smile. My children are doing well in school. I work as a Case Administrator at New Foundations Behavioral Health Agency, where I am able to give families the same help I received. I am also a Chairperson of the Board of Directors for Acelero Learning Head Start in Clark County, NV. I am able to tell families that I was once in their shoes, and that they can accomplish anything they set their minds to. Every family and every situation is different. I myself am proof that with the help of a support system, any family can be self-sufficient.