Giving Our Youngest At-Risk Children a Head Start at Success

Jul 14, 2021

They are the most vulnerable among us, despite being one of our most precious resources. They have no control over their living situation, diet, medical care, or home environment, yet all of those things will impact them for the rest of their lives. They are our young children, and a Salvation Army program has been investing in them for decades.

Head Start is designed to prepare preschool-age children, toddlers, and infants from low-income families for a positive experience in school. This government-subsidized program has never been more important than now, said Leon Denton, the Social Services Director for the Army’s Metropolitan Division. “Most of the children who come to us have developmental delays,” he said, adding that 10 percent have special needs. “With COVID, these children have been falling further behind.”

COVID closures, remote learning, and all the other challenges brought on by the pandemic have taken a toll on children’s education, especially in communities of need, where computers, internet access, and the ability to assist with remote learning have often been lacking. Unfortunately, these children are the least able to withstand these extra hurdles to becoming productive, self-sufficient members of society. “Our goal now is to shorten the gap and help them catch up,” said Leon.  

Helping the Entire Family

From 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Head Start provides children a great daily structure of play, story time, meals, activities, field trips, and naps. “Children have a natural curiosity of their world, which we let them explore in the classroom,” said Janice Woods, Early Head Start Program Director for the Army’s Metropolitan Division. “Here they socialize and engage with other kids and participate in different activities to support learning.” These activities incorporate math, science, physical activity, reading, and storytelling. Throughout the day, teachers and staff observe the children to identify areas of strength and potential growth, helping parents connect with resources for any individual needs their children may have.

“The program was started in the 1960s to engage parents in better preparing and supporting their children’s learning,” said Janice, adding that parental involvement is still a big part of the program. Parents attend monthly meetings, help determine the budget and content of the program, are offered workshops, and can access pastoral care during times of crisis. One of our locations focuses on teen moms while another supports families who are struggling with homelessness.

Though the focus is on the children’s development and education, Head Start benefits the entire family. While the children receive healthy meals and snacks throughout the day, educational field trips, and an environment designed to foster their life-long love of learning, parents also receive the benefit of free childcare, freeing them to work the multiple jobs many of the parents have. Families also receive assistance with medical and dental care and other support services. “The wonderful thing about the Salvation Army is that they also get access to our food pantries, rent assistance, clothing, pastoral care, and other services,” said Janice.

Challenges and Hope for Change

As with all things, COVID-19 impacted our Head Start program. From March through June of 2020, the program was suspended. After developing new safety protocols and procedures, the program reopened in Chicago in July. Parent meetings went virtual, handwashing increased exponentially, and classroom sizes shrunk, not just because of city and state mandates, but also due to low enrollment as parents slowly became comfortable with the new realities of COVID. Some staff members were apprehensive as well.

“We’ve had our work cut out for us to increase enrollment,” Janice said. They currently have openings at nearly all their Head Start and Early Head Start locations throughout the area, located in Humboldt Park, the Lower West Side, and Englewood.    

The other challenge for Head Start is that while the minimum wage has increased in Chicago, a great thing for working parents, the income qualifications for the Head Start program haven’t changed. This means that many parents now don’t qualify for the program, even though they experience the same struggles Head Start was designed to address. Leon and Janice both expressed hope that the qualifications for the program will soon be adjusted as well.

While they eagerly await these changes, they focus on past success. Janice remembers a Head Start director who helped one of the parents find a job. Another parent, who started her own business, has shared her knowledge with other young parents at their meetings. And when that mom experienced a home fire before Christmas last year, The Salvation Army provided furniture, clothing, and gift cards to get the family back on their feet.

“I’ve been in the business of supporting families for almost 40 years,” Janice said. “I really admire the amount of resources The Salvation Army provides. They really elevate families, especially those in crisis.”

Head Start (serving children 3 to 5 years old) and Early Head Start (serving children 6 weeks to 3 years old) is available for children whose parents meet the federal income guidelines (excluding homeless families) and are working or in school fulltime. Learn more and find the application here.

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