Today, at least one in six Americans are living in poverty, including more than 25 percent of children under age 6. Right here in Arizona, almost 30 percent of children under age 6 - close to 150,000 children - are living below the poverty line. In light of the devastating reality of poverty so many among us are facing, it feels almost shameful to express thanks for our bounty during this Thanksgiving season. As the director of the Arizona Head Start Association (AHSA), I see every day how these tough economic times are pushing more and more overstretched families out of jobs and into poverty. I also witness how access to quality early childhood education programs can transform lives.
The first five years of life represent a critical period of growth and development. It is a time when walking, talking, self-esteem, character and moral foundations are established. By age five, children's patterns for learning, interacting with others and understanding their world are set. Quality early childhood education opportunities, like Head Start and Early Head Start programs across Arizona, harness the possibilities during this window of opportunity by approaching young minds with a comprehensive range of tools designed to foster strong social, emotional, physical and intellectual growth. When children are given the benefit of early childhood education, risk factors can be identified and addressed early, stronger communities forged, and positive early life experiences created so students enter school eager and ready to learn. Without exception, the kids in our program exhibit increased independence, improvement in language and communication skills, more self-confidence, and improved relationships with other children.
So, while many of our families are struggling to make ends meet, pay the car payment, and keep food on the table, the children our parents bring to the center every day fill me with joy and gratitude. I am profoundly thankful for Head Start's national commitment that serves as a lifeline to more than 20,000 of Arizona's poor children each year. I am thankful we can offer our neediest children a range of educational, health and nutrition services. I am thankful our parents have the fortitude to keep pushing through adversity while keeping their eye on the prize - the success of their children. I am thankful our communities continue to invest in vulnerable children and families by partnering with us to provide life-altering programs. I am thankful to the staff and volunteers who wake up each day thinking about how best to serve these children and go to sleep doing the same. I am thankful we are removing barriers to success so these children are engaged, energized and fully prepared for kindergarten. Perhaps most of all, I am thankful for the opportunity to be a small part of keeping the Head Start window of opportunity open so these children can access endless possibilities and embark on their journey to lifelong success.
Bonnie Williams is director of the Arizona Head Start Association.