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Head Start: Honoring our soldiers

As we remember our fallen soldiers on this Memorial Day, we salute the heroes who gave everything for our country. While our nation appropriately pauses on this singular day to reflect on the tremendous sacrifices made by the members of our armed services, it is important we also embrace the value of sacrifice in our collective civic lives every day of the year.
What must our departed heroes think of the nation for which they made the ultimate sacrifice? Divisive, partisan politics dominate the national conversation. Racial tensions are derailing the march toward social justice. Economic uncertainties have withered the American Dream for so many. And there is so much poverty amidst so much prosperity. I suspect this version of America may not be the one our fallen soldiers had in mind when they vowed to serve and protect.
{mosads}How can America better serve returning veterans? Is it so difficult to show how much we value their sacrifices? Thinking about how we could present a better version of America to veterans, I was reminded of a young veteran I met last week at a gathering of nearly 5,000 staff and teachers from Head Start programs. She was receiving an award for her extraordinary volunteer commitment to a Head Start program in Illinois.
Valerie spent eight years in the military, the last two a deployment in Iraq. Following her deployment, she sought to resume her life in her hometown, East St. Louis, Illinois. She got a job, enrolled in college, and started a family. But things did not go smoothly for Valerie – she was angry, she could not concentrate, she had trouble communicating – mostly she worried she was not a good parent.
Concerned that her three-year old son was not developing as he should, Valerie wanted to get him help, but did not know where to turn. Then, she received a brochure from someone passing through her neighborhood announcing the start of the school year at a local Head Start program. Valerie did some research about Head Start and decided it might be good for her son.
It was – he improved dramatically. However, Valerie’s Head Start home visitor noticed Valerie was struggling. (Part of the comprehensive services provided by Head Start is a home visiting program.). The home visitor got Valerie involved in parenting activities at the Head Start program. Gradually, Valerie felt valued and engaged and – in conjunction with her PTSD therapy at the Veterans Administration – her self-confidence blossomed. She became a member of the parent policy council, the parent governance body at every Head Start program. Last year, she became a parent ambassador, a state-wide group of Head Start parents who advocate for Head Start in the Illinois statehouse and in Washington, DC. And just two weeks ago, she travelled to Nashville to be presented with a national parent of the year award.
Valerie has regained her life. She is a confident parent. Her kids are succeeding in school. She is active in her community and she has a host of friends.
Valerie proudly served our country but she came back with something she didn’t have when she left – PTSD. At Head Start, Valerie found a place where she was trusted, where the skills she used so well during her eight years of military service were embraced and encouraged. And she found something that seems to be in short supply right now in this country – hope for the future.
What Head Start did for Valerie, what that home visitor did for Valerie, is a reminder of our national responsibility to honor the sacrifices of the soldiers who return, just as we honor those soldiers who don’t. So, on this Memorial Day and every day, let’s find it in our hearts to accept our responsibility to do our best for all returning soldiers and their children. Let’s show them the inclusive, caring America they have pledged to honor and defend.

Yasmina Vinci is Head Start Association Executive Director


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