By Judy Sarasohn, Public Affairs, HHS
What does Xyus, the 17-month-old son of a Northern Virginian single mom, have in common with Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation? Bonnie St. John, a Paralympic skier? Or award-winning correspondent Steve Osunsami?
They’re all Head Start kids.
While Xyus hasn’t made his mark on the world yet, he is participating in the nation’s preeminent public early childhood education initiative at a special time. The Department of Health and Human Services recently announced new standards to improve and strengthen Head Start, based on the best research and on what HHS has learned over the 51 years of the program’s existence.
These new standards will help ensure that Xyus and every Head Start kid can access high-quality, comprehensive early education, making sure the American Dream is within their reach.
In recognition of this first comprehensive revision of Head Start performance standards since 1975, Darren Walker, Bonnie St. John, Steve Osunsami and other Head Start graduates agreed to share their stories:
Darren Walker Visit disclaimer page , named this year to Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, led the philanthropy committee that helped resolve the city of Detroit’s historic bankruptcy and managed the initiative to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
“I was raised by a single mother and I and my sister lived in the early 1960s in a small town in East Texas called Ames. … The scene is a little dirt road with a modest, shotgun shack, and a woman approached my mother and me on the porch and told my mother about a new, government program called Head Start.
“I remember that I felt exhilarated by the process of learning to read … My story of success and achievement was made possible in large part because of the head start I received.
“I say at the Ford Foundation … we’re in the business of hope. Head Start is about hope. It’s in the business of providing hope and opportunity to young, low income, deserving children in America.”
Bonnie St. John Visit disclaimer page wasn’t stopped by having her right leg amputated at age 5. She went on to become the first African-American ever to win medals in ski racing at the Winter Paralympics. And she also served as director for the National Economic Council, and worked on Wall Street.
“People think of all the great things I’ve done, but most people don’t know where I started.
“I grew up in San Diego near the Mexican border... My mom was a single mom struggling with three kids. And I had to have my leg amputated when I was 5 years old due to a birth defect. …
“Head Start gave me that feeling of goodness. I just remember it being a happy memory and a safe place. And that was certainly a turning point for me, to be able to decide I want a better life. … With everything I’ve achieved, Head Start was so important to me because it was a first step in the right direction.”
David Medina Visit disclaimer page is the chief operating officer and co-founder of Results for America. He served as First Lady Michelle Obama’s deputy chief of staff and public engagement director for the Peace Corps.
“I grew up in a close knit Mexican-American family on the Southeast side of Chicago. Both my parents though from day one stressed the importance of learning and of education. I remember my mother taking me to school, to Head Start. It taught me how to speak and read English; it also gave me the courage and the confidence to enter the public school system. …
“I personally believe that Head Start has allowed me to do the things I’ve been able to do, go to graduate school, work here in Washington, D.C., for two U.S. Senators, for the First Lady of the United States. It set the stage for the rest of my life, and I’ll never forget that."
“I tell everyone I’m a Head Start kid. …We were dead broke … Head Start filled a really important role at the time in giving me not just a place to go but a place to learn, and learn early.
“My mother … I’ve got to give her a lot of credit. She wanted better for her children than she and my dad had for themselves, and that’s why she was adamant that I be part of this.”
“[I] was born and raised in Williamstown, New Jersey … For reasons I still can’t explain today, in 1963, my dad left. … I will say there were tough times; we were obviously on food stamps. …
“Head Start definitely is fundamental and foundational to who I became. The love of learning was planted for me at Head Start and quickly evolved into curiosity and the pursuit of science. I pursued the radiation physics path within the Navy. I had a number of jobs over my 20-year career but one of those was the cleanup of one of our former nuclear test sites. …
“By being exposed to education at a very early age it convinced me of the value and importance of being a life-long learner.”
Ambassador Patrick Gaspard Visit disclaimer page has been U.S. ambassador to South Africa since 2013. A former labor union leader, Gaspard previously served as the executive director of the Democratic National Committee.
“I am 100 percent convinced that without the leg up that Head Start gave me, I would not be a U.S. ambassador today. Head Start played such a deep, profound role in my life.
“My family came to the U.S. seeking refuge from political oppression overseas. My father was working two jobs to make ends meet….
“I have very vivid memories Head Start. You had meals that you may not have received at home and a real sense that there was value in your voice.
“I am a Head Start kid for life.”
“From the time I was 7, I was raised by my mom, who worked in factories to raise three kids. …I remember Head Start. I remember feeling very excited about going to school.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s given me and millions of kids a head start … [B]y the time I got to kindergarten, I was already very familiar with the alphabet, familiar with the numbers … you’re also learning a lot of the social skills, the soft skills that are important to be successful as well. …
“My message for kids in Head Start today is that you can do anything that you want to do. If you can conceive it, if you believe it, you can achieve it. I know because I’ve actually lived it.”
Videos on our eight featured Head Start graduates: