Pictured above: Ocean County Community Economic Action Now Head Start leaders in New Jersey meet with Office of Head Start Director Yvette Sanchez Fuentes to discuss recovery efforts.
Last week I traveled to New Jersey and New York to visit Head Start programs and meet with staff and families impacted by Superstorm Sandy.
I was surprised to find many Head Start programs in the impacted areas open and providing services, not only to the children and families they serve daily, but to their community at large.
During my trip, I heard from families without electricity, heat, or food; families whose homes had been washed away; and those still homeless and sleeping in cars.
I spoke with one father who kept saying, "I just need a little help. If I can't take care of myself, how am I supposed to take care of my kids?" I'm proud to report that, the very next day, his local Head Start program found housing for his family.
Many parents said that when they were able to check their phone messages after the storm, the voices they heard were the Head Start director, teacher, and family service worker calling them every day to make sure they were okay. One mom told me that, in her darkest hour, hearing a phone message from her child's teacher and knowing that someone cared about her family gave her the hope she needed to keep going and figure out the next step.
No matter the time of day, Head Start leaders opened their doors to their community to provide hot meals, a warm place to stay, and a place to charge cell phones.
One family service worker shared that her Head Start director kept asking her what families needed and then made sure it was available the next day, whether it was a gift card to buy socks, water, and clothes; a place to live; or extra help taking care of their kids.
Across the country, Head Start staff members are asking what they can do to support their colleagues in New York and New Jersey. Programs are calling to donate materials and provide support staff. In fact, one Head Start director shared: "We were wiped out by a flash flood 18 months ago and have recovered beautifully… but it wasn't without the help of our sister Head Starts. In trying to pay that favor forward, I wanted to let someone know that we have a used 2002 Chevy Bluebird bus with a seating capacity of 20 (that was given to us from another Head Start), that we would be happy to donate to a Head Start program hit by Sandy."
I share these stories because, as Head Start has evolved over its 46-year history, one thing has remained the same: our shared commitment to the communities we serve. When I say community, I mean the entire community our centers are located in, not just the children and families enrolled in the program. In a time of crisis, I'm proud and humbled by the way programs have continued to do what they do everyday – ensure that their community's most vulnerable children and families are not left behind.