by J. D., Ocean Park, ME
"Service is the rent we pay for living" - Marion Wright Edleman
Opening the door of the small rickety Head Start building always means 20 less than clean, but smiling and laughing faces. As soon as they see me, I know what to expect. That is, a jumble of excited voices screaming half-syllable words meant to be my greeting. Allison and Cara, in their yellow, finger-painted smocks, are playing at the water table. My friend Nicole's little brother, Joseph, likes the Silly Putty. He says he could mold funny shapes all day, as he sticks his hand into the brown gooey mess.
Then there is Tommy my assignment for the day. I watch him play in the corner with the toy cars, and I wonder why his eyes are so angry. Marianne says that he won't talk to anyone. The blank look he gives tells me that it won't be easy, but I see a glimpse of hope. My job is not to solve all of his problems by sharing some philosophically deep revelation that will make him understand and become socially functional again. My job is to play with him. Plain and simple. My only purpose is to be a positive role model.
He comes from a low-income family, and in America, the phrase "low-income" usually goes along with another one, "neglected children." Many of them were never taught to share, to eat properly, or to work out problems with their peers. On the other hand, they often seem to be taught to take all they can get when they can get it. They are often deprived of necessities like nutritious food, warm clothes, and even a clean place to live. They learn to hit by watching their parents. For many, punching someone over a toy seems like the right solution. If it weren't for Head Start, most of the children would probably be targeted as emotionally challenged from day one of kindergarten. Luckily they get two well-balanced meals, learn right from wrong, and get the "head start" most children get from their parents.
Unfortunately not many Head Start parents get involved with their child's schooling. Many look at it as time for them to have without their kids. That is why I feel it is my duty to spend time with these kids, to pass on what I have learned from my parents. That is why I have volunteered at Head Start for the past three years.
It is so important for them to fit in while young. Being singled out by their school leaves them open to cruelty that can affect them for the rest of their lives.
I feel that I was lucky. Growing up in a cluttered apartment the size of most people's bedroom was not always easy. I would never get as many Christmas presents as most of my friends, and I would always hide my head whenever Mom had to use those pieces of paper I later found out to be food stamps, instead of the money that everyone else used. Thanks to my strong mother and a hard-working father, we were able to get out of that place. If it weren't for them, I may have fallen through the cracks like many of the poor children of today.
It may not be easy giving up my free periods to spend time at Head Start, but I feel it is my responsibility to these kids to be someone who cares about them, when they can look up to. I want them to know that just because they don't have a great deal of money, they don't have to fall through the cracks. They can make something of themselves without the support of both parents, or a large pocketbook. I know that they can do it, because I did.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.