Getting Ahead

...Head Start Parents

Head Start Parents Take Steps to Get Ahead in Life


FACEBOOK ALBUM of all Getting Ahead Graduates

While their preschool children attended Head Start full time during the day, seven Howard County Head Start parents participated in a Getting Ahead program in the evening last fall. The Getting Ahead program is designed to enable individuals to investigate poverty, and to set realistic goals and find resources to build more prosperous lives for themselves, their families, and their communities.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got. It’s time to make a change. Getting Ahead is the first step in that change,” stated Marlene Lomax,

one of three facilitators of the Head Start Getting Ahead sessions. Marlene is a staff member of the Community Action Council of Howard County (CAC), which serves as the grantee for Howard County’s Head Start program. The other facilitators were Helen Ortiz-Jesus (a former CAC staff member) and Nzinga Severe (a Head Start parent).

CAC, which oversees numerous programs for low-income families, chose to hold the program for Head Start parents to further its two-generation approach in supporting families in their efforts toward reaching self-sufficiency. Sessions were held twice a week for eight weeks at the Old Cedar Lane Head Start.

Getting Ahead groups are an outgrowth program from the Bridges Out of Poverty initiative of the Howard County Board to Promote Self-Sufficiency. The program was implemented in 2013 by the Howard County MultiService Center (MSC), which is part of the Howard County Department of Community Resources and Services.

Groups use the book “Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World” and workshop by Philip DeVol. Facilitators complete certification online and then meet with Director of the MSC Quinton Askew who helps them modify their Getting Ahead sessions to their group’s needs.

Free child-care is available during sessions, transportation is provided if necessary, and a meal is served at each gathering. In addition, each participant is provided a $25 stipend per session to attend.

Numerous groups, including government agencies, nonprofits, educators, courts, and health care providers, have administered the program in Howard County. More than 300 participants have graduated from Howard County Getting Ahead programs. In addition to the seven participants from the fall 2017 Head Start group, nine Head Start parents graduated from the first Head Start Getting Ahead classes that were held in the fall of 2016.

Participants are not the only beneficiaries – the Getting Ahead program provides the framework for service providers to review how they view and treat people in poverty. During the program, participants are asked about barriers they encounter to improving their lives, and the information they provide is written in a report and given to the applicable organizations. Examples of improvements that have been passed along include being empathetic to people who are using public transportation when they are late because buses do not always run on time and consolidating needed information into one form so people do not have to fill out numerous forms that contain the same information.

Partners provide inspiring testimonials, information, and resources at Getting Ahead sessions.

One of the Head Start partners, Jennifer Ransaw Smith, who is CEO of Brand id/Strategic Partners LLC, boosted participants’ confidence that they can recover from obstacles like she did.

Her adversity stemmed from a mistake she made early in life that caused her to spend two hours in jail. “We can do a million and one great things but that’s not how we define ourselves. We make one mistake and 12 years later that’s the thing that perpetually comes up,” Jennifer told the participants. “For years, the person I saw looking in that mirror was that person sitting in that jail cell for two hours. I got stuck.”

Jennifer told the captivated audience that she spent an entire year focusing on changing her mindset.  She urged participants to view themselves as worthy of any goal they set. “The world will never see you higher than you see yourself,” she noted. “You are a decision away from the life that you want.”

Debbie Bennett and Sandra Welch who represented another partner, Success in Style, delivered not only encouraging words but offered each participant a certificate for five items of clothing at no cost so they would have proper attire for job interviews.

Other partners who supported the Head Start sessions were Liberated Expressions, Howard County Workforce Development, and MakingChange Financial Wellness Programs.

Participants also help each other. “Participants meet folks who have similar barriers,” stated Quinton. “They learn they are not alone.” Support also comes from people whom participants ask to hold them accountable for achieving the goals they have set.

A room full of people, including many Head Start staff members and participants’ children, attended the Head Start Getting Ahead graduation at the North Laurel Community Center on Dec. 11 to see the graduates receive certificates and encourage them in the next step of their journey. Some spoke to the group.

“In my business of education – we talk about change agents, working in communities and schools to bring about change,” CAC’s Director of Education Alice Harris told the graduates. “Tonight, we’re celebrating you as change agents who have committed to reach your goals and desires, the things you’ve established for yourselves and your commitment and efforts towards achieving your personal goals.”

Head Start parent Sharde’ Torres was one of three graduates who gave Group Reflections at the graduation ceremony.

“This program was a blessing because it helped me find my voice,” proclaimed Sharde’, the mother of three children.  “I realized my worth. I saw what contributions I could make to Howard County … I love to talk, love working with kids, being around people. So why am I not teaching in a local community college or a full-time coach for middle school?”

Head Start parent Glendora Sierra-Honigmann, who once worked four jobs simultaneously to make ends meet, has encountered a host of unbelievably difficult struggles the last few years, including being homeless. She believes her life is moving in a positive direction, thanks to attending the 2017 Getting Ahead program.

“The number one thing I’ve gotten (from Getting Ahead) are bonds and friendships,” stated Glendora. Her second child, a son, was born in November and she was “overjoyed’ when the group threw her a surprise baby shower. It not only boosted her spirits, but provided essential items she needed for her newborn.

The new mother got an unexpected assist from facilitator Nzinga Severe, who has a son at Old Cedar Lane Head Start where Glendora’s daughter attends. Nzinga offered to transport Glendora’s 5-year-old daughter to and from Head Start every school day. Glendora said it was a “huge relief” that she didn’t have to drive to school twice a day, especially since she has a newborn.

Glendora said the program also gave her guidance as to what career path she wants to take and information about how she can achieve that. Her main goal is to become a Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA), where she can work regular hours so finding child care won’t be as difficult as it has been in her previous jobs. Another Getting Ahead participant, Catherine Nyongole, who is working as a CNA, was able to tell Glendora about the job and the steps needed to get certified.

The Howard County Office of Workforce Development is currently assessing Glendora’s academic skills. It is available to help her find funds to pay for training, and assist her with resume writing and locating a job.

Getting Ahead Program Coordinator Valerie Mathis follows up with Getting Ahead graduates after 30 days and again after six months. If graduates still encounter barriers after that, the MSC will assign case managers to help them.  The Head Start Family Service Team is an additional source of support, and is available to work collaboratively with the MSC case managers.

The facilitators (Marlene, Helen and Nzinga) plan to hold meetings at least once a month as a follow-up for the 2017 Getting Ahead graduates. It will enable the group to continue the friendships they have established and to encourage each other to stay on track with their goals.

Glendora is so grateful for the benefits she has derived from Getting Ahead that she hopes to facilitate a group one day. It will be her way of contributing to the community that came to her aid in her time of need.