Will Strength is a husband, father, and policy advocate with dreams of running for public office in his home state of Idaho. If you had met Will just 15 years ago, you would not have expected this life trajectory. He credits Head Start for its role in helping him break the generational cycle of family hardship.
As a child, Will was abused, neglected, and eventually placed in the foster care system. He dropped out of high school, spent his young adulthood in and out of the criminal justice system, and struggled financially. Despite getting married and having a baby in 2002, Will continued to struggle with what it meant to be a good husband and father, never having had a role model to look up to.
Will Meets Head Start
Will’s wife urged them to enroll their daughter into Head Start, which embarrassed Will. He hated the thought of being on yet “another welfare program” and not being able to provide for his family. But a few months after his daughter began attending Head Start, Will went to his first “Parent Night,” in which parents could learn more about their children’s experience at Head Start and meet the staff and other parents. He learned Head Start is more than a child care program—it takes a comprehensive approach to meeting the needs of young children, including education, health, parental involvement, and social services.
At Head Start, parents are involved in planning program activities, serve on policy councils and committees that make decisions, participate in workshops on child development, and are provided social services support if needed. In the 2016 - 2017 school year, more than 470,000 parents nationwide attended parenting classes through Head Start. At one “Parent Night,” Will’s wife and daughter’s teacher encouraged him to attend a “Male Involvement Night,” which as the name suggests, supports dads to become more involved in their children’s lives. It was here that Will found lifelong friends and a support system, which changed the mold of what Will understood it to mean to be a father. He learned how to spend quality time with his children. He and the other fathers bowled with their children and even built a putt-putt golf course for their kids.
Making Head Start Accessible for Other Families
Head Start started in the 1960s and every year, it reaches more than 1 million children under the age of 5 in families who have low income. However, as of 2020, only 36% of eligible children ages 3 to 5 had access to Head Start, a statistic Will hopes will change because he wants other families to have the opportunity to experience the life-long impact Head Start made on his family, starting at that “Parent Night.”
Flipping the Script
Will explained that because of the positive role models and support system that his family gained through Head Start, his wife went to college to pursue a degree in education, and she now works at a Head Start center. Will earned his GED, enrolled in college, and also works with Head Start. His daughters, who first learned to grow intellectually, socially, and emotionally at Head Start, are now thriving. By elementary school, they were reading above grade level, and today they are in high school with aspirations of going to college. His family is self-sufficient and he prides himself on being a good father. Since “Parent Night” in the early 2000s, Will never returned to the criminal justice system.
“I was way too busy to be incarcerated. I learned leadership skills to get a job, and confidence skills to hold tight to that job. Head Start was my family’s turning point.”
Will’s family isn’t the only one with positive outcomes because of Head Start. In the 2018 -2019 program year, more than 128,000 Head Start parents advanced an educational level and over 67,000 received job training. Families in Early Head Start have more positive parent-child relationships, more stable and healthy homes, and less child welfare involvement.
In 2017, Will and his wife added to their family of four when they became foster parents to Will’s two nephews. Will believes had it not been for Head Start and the influence it had on them as parents to their two daughters, they never would have won custody and their nephews would not be thriving today.
“Fifteen years ago we never would have received that call. Because of Head Start and their influence on our family’s life our sons and daughters have a life of value and love.”