Project Head Start Alum Dedicates Career to Helping Families Thrive

Passing on the Head Start Advantage to a new generation

Head Start Program, 1965

Head Start has been partnering with children and families for 55 years, since its birth during the Civil Rights Movement in 1965. Before Head Start became the year-round early childhood education program we know today, it was Project Head Start, operating only in the summer months. Even in its earliest days, the Head Start model provided comprehensive support to children and families–dental services, health screenings, nutrition services, and parent support have always been a part of Head Start’s holistic approach to meeting children’s needs.

Early in Head Start’s history in the summer of 1968, a young Crystal Banks participated in Head Start in Phenix City, Alabama. But that was only the beginning of Crystal’s Head Start journey. Today, Crystal has been working with Head Start for over 25 years, and is a leader in the program, serving as a center director with Sheltering Arms Head Start in Georgia.

“It was my first time receiving any type of formalized care,” Crystal says of her summer in Head Start. “It was such a positive experience and an opportunity for me, and for the kids in my community, to have an early learning experience.”

The memories that Crystal made in Head Start have stuck with her for life. She remembers the smaller moments, the kind that feels very important as a child, like each morning on the school bus. “I can remember a lot of the high school students in our community volunteered for Head Start, so when we would ride the school bus, they were on the bus to make sure we were safe. And I still remember our bus driver’s name, Mr. Sarge. Whenever we would load the bus, there was another school bus next to us and we would always be telling to the other kids ‘Our bus driver is better than your bus driver!’”

Among the sillier memories, Crystal recalls the enriching moments, as well. “We had the best field trips,” she says. “I mean, we went everywhere. I remember we went to the airport, we went to the bakery, we went to the dairy, we went to the park. It was such a great experience, and that’s why I basically remember everything about it.”

There are certainly many fun memories associated with Crystal’s Head Start experience, but she also recalls the impactful moments that changed the course of her educational journey and her family’s circumstances. Crystal frequently got headaches as a child, which her mother and grandmother would treat with an asprin and a Coca Cola. “I thought that was the fix for everything,” Crystal recalls. “But when I went to Head Start, because of the health checks they required, it was determined that I needed glasses and that’s why I was having those headaches. Head Start purchased the glasses, there was no cost to my mother or anything.” Crystal feels lucky that Head Start helped her family identify her vision needs because she knows, had her vision continued to go uncorrected, it would have impacted her ability to learn in school.

The positive impacts of Head Start were profound for Crystal’s whole family. She was raised by a single mother, and grew up with three siblings, all of whom attended Head Start. They lived in Crystal’s great grandmother’s house with many other cousins, making it a crowded environment. With the support and encouragement Crystal’s mother received from Head Start, she was able to get a place of her own. “My mother would tell us, ‘If it weren’t for Head Start, I probably never would have moved out as early as I did,’” Crystal says. “That parent connection piece was impactful because I remember when we moved, we had our own rooms, and it was just such a great experience for my family.”

The opportunities Crystal had and the skills she gained through Head Start carried into her adult life.

When Crystal moved to Georgia with her husband and young daughter in 1994, applying for a job with Head Start was a natural fit. Crystal’s first role was as family support staff. The training Crystal received in this role helped her support not just Head Start families, but also her own. She feels she learned how to be a better parent to her daughter and understood the importance of staying involved in her education. “I was the ‘room parent’ for my daughter all the way through school,” Crystal says. “I even went on her senior class trip as a chaperone.”

Crystal is also the person that her community of family and friends turn to for advice about working with their children’s schools and addressing challenging behaviors. “I always tell them to use a strengths-based approach,” Crystal says.

In January, Crystal joined the National Head Start Association in Washington, D.C. to advocate for Head Start children and families on Capitol Hill at the Winter Leadership Institute.

And for the Head Start families that Crystal has worked with?

The impact is immeasurable. “There are many families that I met in 2001 or 2002 that I still keep in contact with. One family in particular, the mother had just come out of foster care and she was a young teen mom. She had had a rough childhood. Today, she’s married and has children and a big, beautiful home. She was a parent that would ask for advice for job interviews. She’d ask, ‘Can you give me the language? What should I wear?’”

“She said to me, ‘you were the first person who ever listened to me and how I felt.’”

“There was another parent who would call me every day between 11 and 12 o’clock,” Crystal goes on, “And I would just talk to her and she would say, ‘I know you’re busy, I didn’t want anything.’ She later revealed to me that she was contemplating suicide and she told me, ‘I would call you every day, and by you just taking the time to listen to me, I knew someone cared.’”

“I tell people, you can’t do this work for the money because you’ll never get paid your worth,” Crystal says. “But when you can reflect on moments like that, you know that you’re doing something to make a difference in the lives of children and families.”

Over the past 25 years, Crystal has worked for a handful of Head Start programs in Georgia, moving her way up from Family Support Staff to Family Support Supervisor to Assistant Center Director and to her current position of Center Director with Sheltering Arms. She says she’s had opportunities to move up into senior administration roles but does not want to lose the close interaction with families. “I’ve said I want to stay at this level because at the end of the day when you go home, you know there’s a smile on somebody’s face or someone decided to do something different with their life.”

And Crystal is doing the kind of work that puts a smile on faces and inspires new goals in her program every day. Take her program’s Black History Month celebration, for example. “We are highlighting Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and we’re going to have a pep rally for the parents,” Crystal explains. “We sent out a message to the parents, asking if they or anyone in their family attended an HBCU, and based on the responses, classrooms chose which schools to highlight. Parents are coming in to talk about their experiences so that they can encourage other people.”

This unique, family-oriented Black History Month celebration is a great way to teach students and their families about a part of African American history and introduce the topic of attending college. In many ways, both large and small, Crystal is passing on the impact of her life-changing Head Start experience to the next generation of children and families.

This story is part of the National Head Start Association’s Black History Month blog series to honor the legacy of Head Start champions in the African American community. Stay tuned for more!

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