A Story of Resilience: How Head Start Helped One Family Rebuild Their Lives

On Wednesday, September 25th, hundreds of Head Start families, staff, and supporters united on Capitol Hill to rally for Head Start. Members of Congress stopped by to share why they support Head Start, the community celebrated Head Start’s accomplishments, and parents shared their Head Start stories. Of those parents, Rima Alshawkani, former Head Start Policy Council Treasurer and 2019 Parent Ambassador of the Virginia Head Start Association, inspired the crowd with her story.

Here’s her story in her own words:

“Just a few years ago, I was living overseas in Yemen where my husband and I had our two children, built our home, and established our careers until 2015 when war broke out…

One night, we were sleeping when a nearby bomb caused the windows in our house to break. Thankfully, the glass did not awake our sleeping children, but I was both terrified and grateful for our lives.

I did not want to expose our children to the fear and dangers of war. I made a decision at that moment to leave the country. I booked a flight that same day and left with our children. My husband stayed behind.

Two weeks later, Sana’a Airport was bombed and no one was able to enter or leave. My husband had to wait a year, living in that situation before he could vacate. I came to the United States with nothing to my name, a two year old, and a four year old.”

Despite being in an unimaginable situation, Rima was able to find hope in her son’s Head Start program:

“My four year old son, Haitham, started Head Start, and it was exactly what he needed to establish routine and a safer course from the major changes that were happening in his young life.

Immediately, there was an improvement in his behavior and separation anxiety. He gained social skills and made friends, learned to communicate instead of whine, share and take turns. His teacher alerted me that he had a delay in his fine motor skills which I had never noticed. We worked collectively to overcome that challenge.”

Her children’s involvement in Head Start led Rima to explore new opportunities and exposed her to new skills that eventually helped her to find a new job:

“When it was time to enroll my daughter Aziza in Head Start, I saw it as an opportunity to be more involved in the program. Head Start provides an opportunity for parents to participate in many levels.

I joined the policy council and learned so much from the experience, ranging from creating budget reports in my treasurer role to understanding the standard set to meeting rules and motions.

We participated in multiple trainings and established a great network comprised of Head Start children and families. I gained valuable professional skills which helped me get my current position in finance at a nonprofit here in DC.”

By using the skills she learned through her engagement in Head Start’s shared governance, Rima has not only created stability for her family and achieved success in her career, she also became a leader in her program.

“Last year, I was elected as a Virginia Head Start Association parent ambassador, one of four in the state. In late January, we had our annual advocacy meetings on Capitol Hill, right here. We met with legislators and their aides to inform them about the Head Start programs and tell our individual stories. We walked in the famous underground halls. We saw congressmen we had only seen in the news. It truly is an experience of a lifetime, and I am grateful to be a part of it.”

She ended her speech by encouraging advocates to join her in her continued fight for Head Start:

“I am excited to continue this momentum with you. It is our responsibility to advocate for continued funding for this wonderful program. I tell you with complete sincerity that Head Start was instrumental in helping me get back on my feet and improve my family’s well-being.

There are many families like mine who are here and who would agree with the benefits of Head Start and Early Head Start programs in preparing their children to enter kindergarten school-ready. I appreciate you taking the time from your busy schedules to be here because you believe in Head Start and Early Head Start. But it doesn’t stop here, it doesn’t stop today.

When you go back to your programs, I encourage you to join your policy councils and get involved in strengthening your program. I encourage you to go out in your community and spread the message because it deserves to be known and utilized. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak with you.”

For families such as Rima’s, Head Start is a critical partner in making the most of their opportunities to succeed.

The comprehensive, multi-generational and community-based nature of Head Start is why it is such an effective partner for families in helping them overcome obstacles and find pathways to success. Stories like Rima’s show why advocates must remain united in support of Head Start’s whole-child, whole-family, and whole-community model.

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National Head Start Association

National Head Start Association

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NHSA is a nonprofit organization committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in life.