Salt Lake City Head Start provides comprehensive educational experience for young children

Story and slideshow by TOM BETAR

Explore the Head Start kitchen

The average Head Start  family in Salt Lake City, regardless of the number of members, has an annual income of about $13,947. Some of the children of these families require $5,000 in dental work alone. These alarming numbers come from Kristyn Hancock, the community partnerships manager for Head Start who has been with the organization for more than a year.

The good news is that help is available, and from classrooms to kitchens the staff of Head Start work to educate and support these families so they can be successful now and in the future.

Head Start is a nonprofit organization with 83 classrooms and seven facilities throughout the Salt Lake City Valley that help these needy families overcome financial, educational and health-related obstacles.

The overall mission of the organization, according to its website, is to provide health, education and self-sufficiency to young children and families facing adversity. This entails working with children as early as possible to prepare them for future success in school. About 2,400 children in Salt Lake City, the majority of them ranging from 3 to 5 years old, receive assistance in education and healthcare from the Head Start program. Some of the children are helped from birth until age 2 as well.

Hancock said in a telephone interview that she quit her job doing sales and then was later approached about a position at Head Start. She said even though she may have made more money in sales or other lines of work, she is extremely happy with her decision to work for Head Start.

“I am so fortunate and so thankful to be here,” she said. “I feel like I’m able to give back every single day. Before I never felt like I was able to make a difference. I guess I traded in the big paycheck for a big heart.”

The community partnership aspect of Head Start is built around organizing fundraising and community events that spread the word about the Head Start program. Social media and grant writing fall under this umbrella as well, and Hancock works with many community volunteers to make programs successful.

“Our goal is to be out in the community informing people what Head Start is,” she said. “We are like ambassadors for the program.”

Hancock said every year assessments are done to gauge which areas are in most need of Head Start services, and the west side of Salt Lake City is the frontrunner every year. Although many people may have misconceptions that west-side residents are just sitting around waiting for handouts, Hancock said that is simply not the case for the residents she encounters.

“They are an amazing group of people to work with,” she said. “Many of them are working two or three jobs and they work so hard. They are so resilient. I love working with them.”

In terms of assistance to the children, or “kiddos” as Hancock calls them, the services that Head Start provides in regards to education, healthcare and self-sufficiency all go hand-in-hand.

“For most of our kiddos we are their only opportunity to begin the lifelong education experience,” she said. “I don’t know of any other preschool program that does what we do.”

She said parents play a large role in the development and success of the children, so Head Start tries to involve the parents as much as possible.

“Our goal is to get every child ready for kindergarten and on the same level playing field as their affluent peers,” she said. “We believe parents are a primary asset and we want them to be involved in their child’s education, not just when they (children) are 5 years old but when they are 15. The parents want their kids to succeed and break the cycles of poverty.”

Hancock said in order to properly educate and prepare these children, the first step is to make sure they are healthy and have proper nutrition. This is where people like Brian Ralph come in.

Ralph is the food services director for Head Start and has been in the food business for more than 30 years. He came to Utah to work in the 2002 Winter Olympics and was a food service manager in the Olympic village. He said he fell in love with Utah and now has a job with Head Start. He previously did food service work in the athletic departments of colleges such as Louisiana State University and the University of Colorado.

“There’s really no difference between feeding football players or little kids,” he said. “It’s really the quantity because you still need the healthy food.”

Ralph works in a kitchen located at 2180 S. 300 West that provides Head Start children with diverse, healthy and balanced meals. Food is prepared at the kitchen and then delivered to the classroom sites across town so that children can enjoy nutritional meals to supplement their early education.

“Pretty much the kids will get everything that an adult would eat minus the sugars and the salts,” Ralph said. “The kids learn to trust that the food they are getting is good, so our kids actually do eat our vegetables.”

Ralph said the kitchen uses whole-wheat products and does not serve canned vegetables or deep-fried food. He said the food that is served is restaurant quality and not only nutritional but also ethnically diverse. Meals include vegetarian dishes, jambalaya, beef stir-fry, chicken taco salads, lentil soup, sweet potatoes, fresh grilled tuna casseroles, spinach soufflés and Atlantic salmon — just to name a few.

“We do not believe in buying anything at discounted prices,” he said. “We bring in the best quality we can possibly bring in.”

Ralph said Head Start has a program at the University of Utah where the link between proper nutrition and a better education is visible.

“They (children) are better behaved because they’re not hungry. They are more attentive when it’s time to learn, and they sleep better because their stomachs aren’t hungry,” he said.

In order to qualify for Head Start, a family must be at 100 percent poverty level, which means the income of the household falls below a level set by the government. Hancock, the community partnerships manager, said there are about 1,000 kids on the waiting list for Head Start.

“We serve the neediest of the needy,” she said. “We always have a waiting list.”

Income is not the only criterion. For example, if the father of a family unit is incarcerated, Hancock said that family might be prioritized over another family.

Hancock said in order to measure and quantify success of the Head Start programs a tracking system is now in place for Salt Lake City children. This allows their academic progress to be recorded and analyzed as they move on from Head Start and continue schooling. Because Head Start is a nonprofit, the organization relies heavily on government grants and funding. Consequently, it is closely monitored by the federal government. Data such as test scores can be tracked to reveal the effectiveness of the Head Start programs and help to maintain the high standards.

Patty Mazzoni, Head Start education manager, has been with the organization since 1992. She started out as a teacher and has held her current position for five years. She said the educational aspect of Head Start is codependent on the fulfillment of the other needs for the children.

“We provide an all-around comprehensive education for our children and families,” she said in a telephone interview. “We not only meet the educational needs of a child we also meet the health and nutritional needs.”

Mazzoni said Head Start relies heavily on volunteers and in-kind contributions. For example, medical volunteers such as doctors or dentists provide free health screenings for children in the classrooms.

“Volunteers are a huge part of what we do,” she said. “We encourage parents to volunteer in classrooms.”

She said few other organizations provide the same benefits as Head Start.

“We are probably the only opportunity to place children in a program that will give them a head start in education,” she said.

Mazzoni said there may be some misconceptions out there about exactly what Head Start is and what it is for.

“People think that we are just a daycare to drop kids off,” she said. “We are not at all. We are very comprehensive and we have academic outcomes that we have to show data for.”

Mazzoni said there is something else unique about Head Start that makes her proud to be a part of the organization.

“We serve all children with disabilities, so we are a full-inclusion program,” she said. “We accept any child within our program.”

Being a Head Start employee provides opportunities to make measurable changes in the lives of young children and their families. Food services director Ralph said his job comes with many satisfying rewards, and that results from his work can clearly be seen.

“I enjoy coming to work every day,” he said. “We see the results. We see the change in the children’s weight, we see the change in their attitude, and we see the change in their eating habits. It’s hard to change a child’s eating habits when they’re older.”

Ralph recounted some of the most rewarding experiences he has been a part of since joining Head Start: “When you go into a classroom and you have 3- to 5-year-olds clapping because they enjoyed the meal that was prepared that day, or you have a parent send you a request for a recipe. It’s small steps here. It’s child by child.”