Photo by Jessica Northcutt-Swain
Veneta Wadlow is celebrating 25 years as an employee of the Head Start program at the Riverbend Head Start and Family Services office in Alton.
As the national Head Start Program celebrates its half-century mark, Veneta Wadlow, perhaps as much as anyone, can take a moment to reflect on what the program has meant in her life.
After attending Head Start as a child, Wadlow realized she wanted to help children and is now celebrating 25 years as an employee of the program at the Riverbend Head Start and Family Services office in Alton.
One of Wadlow’s first Head Start memories is the social interaction with other children, including riding the bus.
“That was a very different experience for me,” she says. “I also remember seeing a dentist in an RV, getting a shot from the nurse and seeing those little cartons of milk.”
When the program was created in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, it was part of the War on Poverty. It started as a six-week summer program to help children prepare for kindergarten. Preschools weren’t as readily available as they are now — and they were expensive.
“Families qualify if they live below the federal poverty line,” Riverbend Head Start Public Relations Director Kristin Gosling said. “We work to reverse the effect of poverty by focusing on school readiness so children will be on the same level as their peers when they go to kindergarten in the public schools.”
In Head Start’s 50 years it has benefited more than 31 million children throughout the country. The local agency serves 1,000 children every year.
Wadlow attended the program for two summers in 1966 and 1967 and received a certificate, signed by Lady Bird Johnson herself, which shows she attended and was involved in the activities.
Her mother proudly kept that certificate for decades.
“It means a lot to the parents and must have been a big deal to my mom, as well,” Wadlow says.
While attending college, she made ends meet by working in preschools. Before her role as supervisor, she was working in a private preschool.
“I saw an ad in the newspaper for the (Head Start) program,” she says. “I knew instantly what Head Start was from being in the program. I thought, why not apply? I know what it is, what they do, and that it’s a good program.”
While the program was developed to help children, it has expanded over its 50-year span to do much more. Dental and vision help are available, as well as shots and medical needs.
Two programs are available: Early Head Start and Head Start.
The early program is for pregnant women and focuses on helping expectant mothers with job skills, receiving their GED or going to college. It also helps find medical attention and teaches how to take care of infants.
Head Start helps children by having a creative curriculum that begins at the child’s current stage and analyzes how to move forward.
“This program helps children socialize better, learn how to stand in line, write their name, tie their shoes, button up their coat and how to get along with their neighbors, which helps children learn the basics in life and become better citizens as adults,” Wadlow says.
As center supervisor, Wadlow is on hand to assist and support case managers, family service workers, teaching and support staff. She also will step in and teach, go door to door when necessary, or simply interact with people in the community.
“This is a rewarding program, and I just hope it’s here in another 50 years, evolving to meet the community’s needs,” Wadlow says.
Riverbend Head Start & Family Services operates six Head Start centers in Alton, Bethalto, Collinsville, Edwardsville and Granite City, where there are two locations.
For information, call (618) 463-5950 or visit the website at www.riverbendfamilies.org.