The Bonner Center for Civic Engagement awarded Mariah Williams, ’14, an academically grounded Burhans Civic Fellowship to intern with the Bloomingdale Family Program in New York City during summer 2012. Williams, who is majoring in sociology, has taken courses focusing on education in a variety of disciplines. Her summer internship provided her the opportunity to connect theory to practice as she supported the Bloomingdale staff both in Head Start classrooms and in administrative duties. Here, Williams shares her reflections.

I remember my mother dropping me off at Head Start when I was three. Many thoughts raced through my mind as I watched my mother leaving that first day, but I never once thought that she did not love me. I never thought that she was too preoccupied with other tasks to take care of me during the day. Even at that young age, I was well aware that life had not afforded my brother and me the luxury of having a stay-at-home mom to care for us. My mother dropped me off at Head Start out of a sense of love and hope for the possibility of something better. She knew the Head Start staff would nurture and take care of me. She left me because she was a single mother who needed to work.

New York City’s federally funded Head Start program began in 1965 with the aim of providing pre-school children from low-income families with comprehensive, quality educational resources, while meeting their social, emotional, psychological, and nutritional needs in an effort to combat poverty. Today, Head Start serves more than one million children and families annually across the nation. During the 2009-2010 school year, a total of 21,283 children from 20,690 families received services in New York City alone (HS Program Information Report, 2010).

This summer, I had the opportunity to relive my Head Start days while interning at the Bloomingdale Family Program, a Head Start site located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. During my 10-week internship, I came to realize that in its 47-year existence Head Start has transformed into more than an early-childhood education program. Bloomingdale, in particular, emphasizes building up the community through its work with parents and children. In addition to its full- and half-day services to children, it offers a number of programs designed to keep adults active and informed in their role as parents. For example, the Parent Leadership Project consists of a network of parents and advocates who work together to learn how to navigate the school system upon leaving Bloomingdale. Other programs include health-and-nutrition workshops, tutoring programs, and mothering workshops.

Despite its demonstrated impact on the community, Bloomingdale battles the threat of losing funding under Mayor Bloomberg’s Early Learn NYC initiative. City officials claim that Early Learn NYC will seamlessly blend funding from the city’s Head Start, child-care, and universal pre-K programs by placing these programs in communities with the greatest need. They also say Early Learn NYC will provide high-quality learning environments for children by holding teachers and administrators to high standards. Despite these claims, the most successful Head Start and child-care programs are being hit the hardest. Under Early Learn NYC, Bloomingdale will have to close one of its three sites this fall, cutting off services to approximately 50 youngsters.

For many families, including my own, Head Start provides an educational foundation, a place that nurtures both children and parents socially, academically, intellectually, and emotionally. At Bloomingdale, education is about more than what the children learn inside of the classroom. It is about effecting positive change within the community by planting seeds of hope for families.

Photo: Mariah Williams, '14, with Bloomingdale Family Program preschoolers