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How Head Start Helped a Migrant Family

Corona Head Start Senior Program Director Yolanda Vega with Johana and her two children, a migrant family.

A long-time Child Center employee reflects.

By Yolanda Vega, LMSW
Senior Program Director, Head Start Corona

Corona Head Start Senior Program Director Yolanda Vega with Johana and her two children, a migrant family.

Blog author Yolanda Vega (far right) with Johana (center) and her two children

This is a story about a family who traveled on foot from South America to the United States.

Johana and her partner, José, had their first child in Venezuela. When their first child was one, Johana and José made the decision to leave the country, as economic and political turmoil made it increasingly more difficult to get by. The family then settled in Peru for six years where they welcomed their second child. In 2022, the family made the difficult decision to leave Peru, facing economic hardship and challenges accessing critical services and resources because they were not recognized as citizens; only their baby, who was born on Peruvian soil, was considered a citizen. Traveling by foot through Mesoamerica and Mexico with two small children, Johana and José were determined to make it to the U.S. to provide the best future possible for their family.

I met the family in the fall of 2023, shortly after they had finally made it to the United States. I made a recruitment outreach visit with my co-worker Aaron McIntyre, Corona Head Start’s family service coordinator, to the homeless shelter where the family lives. It is customary for us to conduct these outreach efforts to let families in the community know of our program. On the day Aaron and I met Johana and her young son Misael, I was immediately struck by Johana’s enthusiasm for our program. She wanted to give her child the opportunity to learn how to read and write, as she never learned these skills and knew how hard life was without them. She wanted better for her son and worried that she couldn’t teach him. Aaron and I quickly shifted our attention to speaking with mom rather than showing her pamphlets and forms. We talked, and Johana listened attentively. She was so happy to learn that her son would be eligible, and about all he would learn at Head Start, including, though not limited to, academic readiness, so that he could begin his educational journey at the same level as his peers, and her own lack of knowledge would not hold him back.

Many of our migrant families have made the trip north through very dangerous circumstances, especially when walking through the “frontera,” or the divide between two countries, which many times is filled with gangs and other perilous circumstances. This family, sadly, was no exception. They were robbed in two countries. One time, the robbers pulled out machetes and stated they would slaughter them if they did not give up their cash. Though they had little money with them, who can argue with a machete against their throat?

The family’s journey through eight countries took them through Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and, finally, Mexico, where they surrendered to U.S. immigration officials and, eventually, got on a bus to New York for a 36-hour ride to the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan, where all migrants are taken upon their arrival to New York. After they completed the process for entering a shelter, the family was given a room with a kitchen and their own bathroom. When the family got to their room, Johana got on the floor to thank God for finally having a bed for her family to sleep on.

After the family had been living at the Manhattan shelter for a year, the NYC Department of Homeless Services moved them to a shelter in Corona, Queens, which is how my team and I came to meet them and enroll Misael in our Corona Head Start program, where he has been thriving.

After assessing Misael’s development in various areas, as we always do with students, our Head Start team worked with Johana to get Misael evaluated through the New York State Department of Education (DOE) Committee for Pre-School Special Education for a suspected speech delay. As Johana awaits word about Misael’s placement for speech therapy (which we can provide on-site through a collaboration with the DOE), Misael is flourishing in the classroom. The class’s language immersion has helped him tremendously. He is able to state his wants and needs to his teachers, which he hadn’t been able to do previously. As a result of being understood, he is much calmer and ready to learn.

The Child Center takes a holistic approach to serving families, and while we care for Misael’s development, we also help the family meet other needs. Both Misael and his brother received backpacks filled with school supplies that they can use in their shelter room, pajamas, sneakers, books, and coats. Through the collection efforts of several of our teachers, Johana received much-needed shoes, a coat, and other clothing.

Johana is extremely grateful for all of what she has gained from being connected to our program, and she often comes to my office to keep me posted on the jobs she and her husband have taken. Johana has found work in offices, though she doesn’t find openings as often as she would like. Her husband, who is a food delivery person on an e-bike, is busy working seven days a week. On a recent weekend afternoon while I was in my car waiting for the light to change, I heard my name, “Miss Yolanda,” and as I turned my head to face where the voice was coming from, I saw that it was Misael’s dad, who was waving at me. I blow my horn, and wave “hello.”

It is moments like these, when I run into clients, and they seem so genuinely happy to see me, that confirm why I continue to work for The Child Center of NY. The mission drives right into my heart, and I often think of that professor who said when I wanted to join the Peace Corps, why are you doing this when you are so needed right here where you are! Indeed, I love living and working in the communities I serve as it confirms: The Child Center of NY strengthens children and families with skills, opportunities, and emotional support to build healthy, successful lives.

Yolanda Vega has worked for The Child Center of NY for 22 years, first as a part-time Head Start social worker, followed by promotions to assistant director of early childhood programs and director of one of The Child Center’s Prevention and Family Support programs, and now as the director of our Corona Head Start. 

Replacing Obstacles with Opportunities for Migrant Families—Especially the Children

A Head Start classroom at The Child Center of NY’s Early Childhood Corona Center, where 10 to 15 percent of enrolled children are from migrant families. Photo credit: Vier Visuals

By Tanya Krien
Vice President, Early Childhood Education

A Head Start classroom at The Child Center of NY’s Early Childhood Corona Center, where 10 to 15 percent of enrolled children are from migrant families. Photo credit: Vier Visuals

A Head Start classroom at The Child Center of NY’s Early Childhood Corona Center, where 10 to 15 percent of enrolled children are from migrant families. Photo credit: Vier Visuals

Last month, I was honored to serve as a panelist for the Roundtable Discussion, “Children in Migration and Access to Services in NYC: Obstacles and Solutions Towards a More Inclusive and Cohesive Society,” sponsored by the NGO Committee on Migration, Subcommittee on Children in Migration. This event brought together experts and practitioners working to address the challenges migrants face with access to resources and education in NYC, especially for children and their families.

As Vice President of Early Childhood Education at The Child Center of NY, I oversee six Early Head Start and Head Start programs. These programs serve children under the age of 5 who are from low-income families and face other barriers to school success. While the children in our programs face incredible challenges, they start out with as much promise as any child. Year after year, our extensive data and firsthand experience show that with the right support, these children can and do flourish.

Of course, what constitutes the “right support” changes with the times, as everything does. It is up to us to evolve and ensure we are meeting the needs of today’s children and families.

Right now, we are seeing an influx of children from immigrant families who are living in homeless shelters. Additionally, more children than ever before are presenting with special needs.

During the panel discussion, I spoke about the experience of migrant children once they arrive here, what services are helpful, which services are lacking, and how we are—and should be—responding to their needs so that they can begin school ready to learn and begin life ready to thrive.

Here is what the right support for young children from migrant families looks like today in New York City.

More 1:1 attention. When children at such a tender age are continually displaced, their ability to form relationships is affected. They are not sure what to expect day to day, and this negatively impacts their ability to form secure relationships with their teachers and age-appropriate relationships with their classmates.

Immigrating to a new country—usually following and involving severe trauma—causes a lack of continuity on its own. That sense of instability is exacerbated by living in the shelter system, especially in light of a new rule that migrant families can stay in a shelter for only 60 days; they can reapply, but then they can be placed anywhere in the five boroughs. This means a child in our Head Start program in Corona, Queens, might be moved to a shelter in the Bronx and start all over again with new teachers, new children, new routines, and a lack of the kind of continuity that contributes to a child feeling safe and secure—that is, if they can even find a school that will enroll them.

We also see disruptive behaviors in the classroom as a result of children being overstimulated and unused to the structured environment. In a shelter, you have minimal toys and books, to say the least. Here, you have a plethora. Children who are unused to such an array want to see and do everything at one time, often without knowing the basics of how to play with toys or what a book is for. It may be difficult for them to transition from one activity to another. Sometimes they don’t have the language to say, “I want to play with this toy,” and it comes out as biting or hitting. With several children in each classroom fitting this description, the old paradigm of one teacher and one assistant in a classroom of 15 to 18 children is insufficient.

That is why we sought funding for a senior engagement specialist* who is a licensed social worker to provide mental health consultation and support to our Head Start staff, children, and families. This role is vital in classroom operations as well as in offering guidance to teachers and parents. For example, imagine a child who fits the description above: they are playing with a toy and are having a hard time transitioning to circle time. The senior engagement specialist might choose to give a task (sense of responsibility) to this child—for example, saying to the child, “Can you carry this book over to Ms. X for her to read?” This helps in the moment, and it provides teachers a model for future reference.

At the same time all this is going on, we are seeing a dramatic increase in children with special needs, such as learning disabilities and lack of language development. This applies not only to migrant children, but also American-born children who grew up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, 10 to 15 percent of children in our classrooms had special needs. Since the pandemic, that number is expected to rise to about 40 percent once formal evaluations are conducted. Although our teachers are trained in teaching children with special needs, the demand right now is more than they can possibly meet.

Mental health support. Just the very experience of immigrating is a trauma in itself; on top of that, families also have the trauma of whatever circumstances prompted them to leave their home country, from extreme violence to extreme poverty. Accessible and affordable mental health care, offered in the language they speak and delivered by clinicians who share lived experiences with families, must be a part of any solution.

Estaphanie, an immigrant whose son is at The Child Center's Early Head Start

Estephanie, with her husband and son, also spoke at the roundtable.

Estephanie, a mom of one of our Early Head Start students, spoke beautifully about this at the roundtable. Estephanie and her husband immigrated here from Chile. Shortly after they arrived, Estephanie discovered she was pregnant, and the basement apartment they rented was flooded. Thankfully, Estephanie found our Early Head Start program for her son. True to The Child Center’s commitment to serve the whole child and entire family, a family worker at our program earned Estephanie’s trust and assessed the family for additional needs. The family worker talked to Stephanie about mental health services, and the family is now enrolled in The Child Center’s Early Childhood Mental Health program. These services—early childhood education and mental health—work together to give Stephanie’s son the academic and emotional bright start that Estephanie and her husband came to this country to give him—and which all children deserve. Equally important, Estephanie and her husband are getting the support they need, too.

Physical health services. Children are coming to our programs without the typical vaccinations and often with significant health problems, particularly dental issues. Our teachers, family workers, nurse-practitioner—whoever most connects to the family—are trained to recognize these issues and refer them to needed services in a way that respects families. The result is that almost all our families get the care they need, as you can see in our latest Head Start annual report.

Building relationships and trust. This was one of main points I spoke about during the panel discussion: Building relationships with families is the foundation on which all other progress is built. Families listen to us when we suggest mental health services or a visit to the dentist because our team is made up of credible messengers: people who share lived experiences with our clients and are embedded in the community. We build relationships with families from day one, and we never stop. This is important also because parents and other primary caregivers are children’s first and most important teacher. We want parents to be engaged in their children’s education so they can support their academic journeys long after their last day in our programs—and that engagement starts with relationships.

In her keynote speech, Dr. Najat Maalla M’jid, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Violence Against Children, noted that we have an obligation to protect the rights of children, and this right supersedes all other issues. This must be the underlying principle behind all policies and programs that serve children who migrate with their families to our city. They have the same rights as any other child—and, it’s important to remember, just as much potential, too.

*Thank you to First Rate for their generosity in funding this vital position, and to Excellence in Giving for presenting this opportunity.

On the Separation of Migrant Families at the Southern Border

By Traci Donnelly
Chief Executive Officer

A famous quote, often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, states that a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members. Children depend entirely on others and are therefore the most vulnerable among us. Living up to our responsibility to our children is our most sacred obligation. Continue reading

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