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Head Start saved my family [Commentary]

Picture a young, newly divorced mom in the early 1970s, with three young children and hopes and dreams, trying desperately to make it on her own but finding life impossible. Imagine not having enough money to buy food for your children, or to afford to pay rent, and not feeling safe — feeling your life was completely unraveling, but you still have these children to care for and you have no way to make life work.

That was the position my mother found herself in. She recently told me her story and said Head Start, the federal early learning program for children up to age 5, was her "salvation."

Our young, divorced mother could not find work and day care that could make ends meet for my two brothers and me. Putting her pride aside, she accepted welfare assistance and enrolled one of by brothers (the other was too young) and me in the Head Start program in Middletown, N.Y. Head Start was a vehicle that lifted up and supported our fragile family in so many ways, when everything else was going wrong. The caseworkers helped my mom navigate the scary, complex world that a family faced due to lack of income, lack of food, lack of safety, lack of resources and lack of hope.

My brother and I were given a safe environment in which to learn and play. As we were comfortably spending our day in Head Start, our mother was also supported by caseworkers who, as my mom told me, helped her "to regain confidence and perspective." They also helped her "work through the crazy welfare system," she said, by advising her of the right to fair hearings and other assistance programs that the family might be eligible for.

When I reflect on the way Head Start was a bridge that filled the gap during the time that my family was in such distress, I think about the children currently in Head Start today. It strikes me that many people here in our lovely and wealthy Howard County may not be aware that there are four Head Start locations that enroll 264 low income Howard County children. The maximum income to qualify for the program is $23,550 for a family of four. And in a county where the median household income is more than $100,000, more than 700 children qualify. Sadly, not all are fortunate enough to receive a spot because funding is limited.

I grew up in an extremely poor family but was given every opportunity to have a different future for myself. Head Start was the main instrument in establishing the positive new direction of a path toward a solid education for my brother and me. Eventually, my mother found employment as a social worker, and she spent her career helping others. All three children in our family successfully graduated from college. My older brother is a bio-chemist, I'm a Certified Public Accountant, and our younger brother is a legal assistant and swim instructor.

When I think today about change for the future and ways to end poverty, I think about the children. If communities can come together to help ensure that every child can have the same opportunities for education, regardless of their parents' situation, we can lift up our entire population. And if, while the children are being educated, we can simultaneously surround families in crisis with support and training for their needs, then we have a recipe for a promise for a better future.

I feel privileged to work alongside the many beautiful people at Community Action Council, who work tirelessly, case by case, to make a difference in the future of so many families. I often wonder what our community would look like if more groups were aware of the needs and joined the many who are already partnering in the effort, supporting such organizations as ours. I am curious if people know the desperate need for new buses for Head Start, for food for the food bank, and for funding to help those in crisis.

And I wonder what would become of us if Head Start hadn't been there.

Edie Manney is the director of finance for the Community Action Council of Howard County. Her email is emanney@cac-hc.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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