By Lakita Oats
At 18 years old, I had no permanent address, no income, and a three-year-old daughter who was not in school. I was in Chicago at the time, relying completely on the support of friends and family to get by. I was truly homeless, about to move into a shelter with my daughter before a friend offered me a place to stay temporarily. After that, I moved between other friends’ houses, still desperate and in need of something more permanent and stable. One day a friend referred me to what I thought was just a nice daycare. It turned out to be so much more.
In 2008, I enrolled my daughter in the Head Start program. It was everything we needed as mother and daughter: education, support, resources, even a second family. I was excited to be part of something so positive during a time in my life that was not. I joined the program’s Parent Committee and Policy Council, and even became a Policy Council Secretary (a position that grew skills I would use later in my career). I also had some college hours which the Family Support Specialists encouraged me to build on by getting back into a university. So, I enrolled at a community college and started taking classes.
During my second pregnancy, Head Start remained involved with my whole family, continuing to support our goals. While life was still not exactly where I knew it could be, I continued taking college classes and started living with my aunt and uncle, who had graciously opened their home to me though they hardly had space left to give.
Around the same time, program staff asked if I would like to be a part of a new Doula program they were offering to pregnant mothers. I was grateful for this additional path of support, receiving assistance throughout my pregnancy. Within eight weeks of my second daughter’s birth, I was able to enroll her in an Early Child Education program, where she received a tremendous amount of support from the staff just as my older daughter and I had. The second family I had grown to know and love at Head Start was helping my immediate family grow to know and love each other.
Now a mother of two, I started to transition my focus from ensuring a healthy pregnancy into establishing an opportunity-filled life for both of my girls. I could not completely support them without first supporting myself. So, I enrolled in a job placement program offered through the state of Illinois, and soon found employment.
In less than two years, I had grown from a frightening time in my life as a homeless single mother to a stable parent with the promise of a future for her children.
Once I started working, I was able to move into an apartment of my own. My oldest daughter went to kindergarten prepared for what was to come, and my youngest started in her new program. In less than two years, I had grown from a frightening time in my life as a homeless single mother to a stable parent with the promise of a future for her children. Every move I made, I made for my girls and for the future of my family, and while the success I found would not have been possible without my drive and desire to achieve the life I knew was possible, I was so appreciative for every person who helped shape the woman I was becoming and the mother I was so proud to be.
I was in my own apartment with my children for more than a year until I moved to Missouri to join my future husband. There, I enrolled at Columbia College, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in human services. I wanted to help others the way others had helped me. I wanted to prove to people what they were capable of when they were given the right tools to accomplish what they wanted.
I worked toward my degree until 2015. By then, I was married, had three daughters, and was on my way to South Korea, accompanying my husband on a deployment in the U.S. Army. I had to put my educational goals on hold during my two years in Korea, as the time difference and busy schedule made even online courses a difficult option. However, during the break from college, I gained valuable experience as a Child and Youth Program Assistant, serving children in classrooms and after-school programs. My time there reaffirmed that I was on the right path: I definitely wanted to continue working with children and families.
When my family returned to the U.S., we moved to South Texas, where I learned about the opportunities available through BCFS Education Services. I took a position as a Family Specialist with BCFS Education Services, helping people on the other side of a story I had lived only a few years before. I continue to serve families in this way today.
Thinking back on where I’ve been and where I’m going, I credit what I learned from the Head Start program years ago as a teenage mother. The family specialists who served me showed me what was possible. They revealed a path that eventually gave me work experience, educational advice, maternal support, and most importantly, hope. I was able to take those pieces and build something truly meaningful and lasting. It was not always obvious where I was headed along the way, but it was always clear that I was moving.
In 2018, I earned my degree from Columbia College with a Bachelor of Arts in Human Services. I travelled more than four hours to the graduation ceremony so that I could walk across the stage and receive my diploma. I did this intentionally. I did it in the presence of my three children, to show them what was possible – to make a point that life was only as good as you worked to make it.
Am I doing enough for the parents and children I work with? Am I doing as much as what was done for me?
Now that I am serving as a Family Specialist, sometimes it can feel like I am not living up to the level of service that I was given as a young mother. Sometimes I question, “Am I doing enough for the parents and children I work with? Am I doing as much as what was done for me?” Still, I recognize that I am new to much of this, being on the other side of the situation. Coming so far does not mean I have made it; it means there is still a long way to go. For now, the most important thing I can be is a support for the families who need someone strong to lean on. The best gift I can give is my time and my openness to communicate, my willingness to provide whatever is needed to give families a future.
Even though I am staying busy in Texas with three daughters, a husband, and a new career, I still find time to visit Chicago every once and a while. Whenever I visit, I always enjoy meeting up family Specialists that were so important to my daughters and me. You could call it a second-family reunion.