Finding a Home in Head Start
How a Mom Experiencing Homelessness Became a National Advocate for Children
Just last week, a resolution passed in the US Senate dedicating November as National Homeless Children and Youth Awareness Month. As we use this month as an opportunity to think about how we can best support children and families experiencing homelessness, we share the story of one parent whose Head Start experience was instrumental in her family’s journey to getting back on their feet.
Experiencing Homelessness with Six Children
By Jennifer Johnson, Parent Ambassador and a Policy Council Chairperson at Ohio State University Early Head Start. As delivered in a speech at the 2019 National Head Start Association Winter Leadership Institute.
“Four years ago, my husband and I and our six children — my youngest being two months old — were homeless. We didn’t know where we were going to go, how we were going to get started. We were confused. We were lost.
I didn’t even know who I was. I searched deep down inside to find myself. Stuck in a hard situation, struggling, I didn’t know what I was going to do or where to start…
We had to put our pride aside, we had to do what was best for our children and for ourselves, and that was finding ourselves to be able to help our family. So, we went to the homeless shelter. We were there for 21 days.
Desiraya, our youngest — 2 months old —was in and out of the hospital with respiratory infections, asthma, ear infections… As you can imagine that added more onto the stress, more onto the struggle.
Finding a new job and needing more than child care
I cried day in and day out. Trying to find myself and still hold myself together for my family. Through it all, I was introduced to AmeriCorps National Service. It saved my life. It helped me to discover who I was, to grow personally and professionally.
I end up with that commitment to AmeriCorps and I had to find childcare, not any child care, but quality education, a safe location and environment, teachers that were willing to teach, had a passion, and were able to advocate for our children as well as for us parents. I found that with Gifted Hands’ Esther Jefferson — she has been amazing. She has been a part of my support system.
When I was introduced to Ohio State University’s Early Head Start program, I found even more support. I found the courage to use my voice. I stepped outside of my comfort zone to be able to be that voice for other parents. So, moving forward, Desiraya will be graduating this fall, transitioning into kindergarten.
Helping her daughter overcome serious health problems
Amidst it all, of her being sick, one day she went for a doctor’s visit and it went all downhill. They admitted her into the hospital for two weeks to find out what was the issue. I cried, part of me didn’t even want to deal with it — it was overload for me, but I knew it had to be done.
The next morning, four doctors walk in and I’m just wondering what in the world is going on? It doesn’t take four doctors to tell you the results of your child’s sleep study or the results of her labs. They said, “Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, your daughter needs emergency surgery right away.” It blew my mind. She had surgery, she needed tubes inserted in her ears for her speech and communication that was delayed, so we moved forward with that.
Up to this day, Desiraya has 100 percent of her hearing. She is able to express her needs. She is able to learn, she has that same opportunity as other children her age — sometimes, I’m like please, would you stop talking? Stop interpreting what I feel like — but she’s great. She’s my better half.
Supporting her family on their path to success
I believed with the support of Ohio State Early Head Start and her teachers, who sat me down and showed me that support and encouraged me that I was not alone… I was not alone at all. I had people that were there for me. It wasn’t just the stigma that we are always portrayed to have.
Being in AmeriCorps, being introduced to Ohio State University, all of it was a glue for me. I stuck with that and today I use my voice for other parents, for other children that don’t have that voice, that hasn’t discovered their voice yet. To be that inspiration, parents we are that voice. We need to use our voice to continue to advocate for our children. For the teachers who are out there, continue to have that passion because our children need it. Quality education is important, and we are that very first step.”
A Note on the National Scale
Across the country, Head Start programs are currently supporting more than 55,000 children who are experiencing homelessness with a stable environment, consistent routines, and caring adults. Head Start serves children and families when they need its support most.Their experiences in Head Start help them build the social and emotional skills they need to cope with and overcome the adversity of their circumstances. Simultaneously, Head Start works with parents and caregivers, connecting them to the services and resources they need on the path to self-sufficiency. This multi-generational approach makes Head Start a true partner for families experiencing homelessness.