Traveling in rural Arkansas, you can sometimes forget where you are. The long stretch of bumpy highway, surrounded by cotton fields and rice paddies, could be in one of a dozen countries I’ve traveled to recently. And, unfortunately, the poor families I met could have been from any of those countries too—rather than living in the richest country on earth. The kind of poverty you find these days in America is shocking, and it makes me wonder what’s happened to cause so many families to be left behind.
In rural Arkansas, 30% of families live in poverty. Families like the one we met in Forrest City—just Angela and her two daughters, Michala and Hope.
Together with some of our Save the Children Board members, I met Angela in her small, clean apartment in a government housing neighborhood just off the main road. The apartment was sparsely furnished with just enough room for us all to sit and talk in the living room/dining area. Angela’s a petite, bubbly woman with a quick smile that immediately makes you want to hug her. She told us her story—how she grew up in a raft of foster homes and became pregnant as a teenager with her first child. How her oldest, Michala, missed her dad and wondered if it was her fault he left. How she had just decided, to the delight of the Save the Children staffer who worked with the family, to go back to school at the local community college so she could work in the Head Start program Michala attended.
And all the while, a little figure darted around the room, smiling and getting into things. Hope is just one and a half years old, but she’s full of energy and was looking for chances to get away with something while we had her mom’s attention. She climbed on the table and rifled through her mom’s purse, giving us big grins to make sure we were watching, and finally running off to get a book from her room. Angela told us how Michala read to Hope all the time—and how she had learned to read in the local Head Start program, which had been taken on by Save the Children just steps away from her apartment, and is now thriving at the kindergarten in town. When we asked Angela if she had been to preschool as a kid herself, Angela gave us a sad smile and said she didn’t think so—but that she honestly couldn’t remember because she had been to so many schools as a kid. In Arkansas today, 39% of kids three to five are not enrolled in preschool or kindergarten.
The story of Angela and her kids stuck with me as we made the bumpy bus trip back to Little Rock. Here is a woman who had had so little as a kid herself but who is trying so hard to make a better life for her daughters. And programs like Head Start are helping her chances. Her children are already off to a stronger start than she’d had, preparing for school and getting two nutritious meals a day with caring teachers who help them to learn how to learn and get started on the basics.
There’s a lot of push-back these days on programs like Head Start and many Americans think preschool is a luxury for poor families that should be defunded. But when I met Angela and her daughter, Hope, I saw that there couldn’t be a stronger case for these programs when they are run by responsible operators. Here is a family that deserves the chance for a better start, and a mom who is working hard to give a life to her kids she never had. Here is a family that truly deserves a chance for Hope.
How do you think Americans can help build hope for the next generation of kids in the US? Share your thoughts in the comments!