During a recent visit to the American Way Head Start and Early Head Start center run by non-profit Porter-Leath, I was reminded of the power placed and found in our hands. The very first thing of which I was made aware is that when parents bring their children to school, there is no drop-off or carpool drive-up at the front entrance. All children are walked to their classrooms by parents and guardians bringing them in for the day and while for some of us this may read as an inconvenience of sorts, it wasn’t long before I understood how powerful a gesture this is. At Porter-Leath there are no hand-offs because no one is looking for handouts; they are simply seeking helping hands to steer them, as parents and protectors of these young, malleable lives, in the direction they need to go but sometimes aren’t sure of how to get there.
Originally opened by Sarah Leath in 1850 to serve Memphis’ widows and orphans, Porter-Leath is now an organization which helps over 10,000 low-income children and families through its various programs that begin the nurturing and educating of these family units while children are still in the womb. The Cornerstone program educates pregnant mothers in the environment where they will most use what is learned: their homes. Children from birth to five years old are taught and cared for in one of various locations Porter-Leath utilizes for its Early Head Start, Head Start and Pre-K programs. Its Connections and Spoonfuls programs are a vital part of the wrap-around services provided by the organization wherein its clinical staff offers around-the-clock support to our city’s most vulnerable families. This includes “residential, foster care, adoption, runaway and homeless services for children from birth to age 18 in a supportive and therapeutic environment” and “providing nutritious meals to children every day…[to] ensure that children 12 years of age and younger enrolled in child care homes and centers receive well-balanced, nutritious meals.” While this all looks good in black and white, what does it mean for the families in our ever-colorful world of reality? More than we can imagine, with our imagination fueled when given the opportunity to see, in person, how this all comes together for the benefit of everyone involved.
I worked with a small group of children who were learning and reviewing alphabet letters: our letter for the day was “P”. We all diligently worked on our letter-sheets (yes, it was insisted on by all at our table that I, too, color in all of my Ps- using my favorite color pink.) A few of the children excitedly talked about moments from their day thus far while others periodically looked up at me from their papers without saying anything. But they all shared the common goal of, and pride in, getting their work done. Every so often I’d feel a gentle tap on my arm from the little girl sitting to my right: her taps indicated she wanted me to look at her work and make sure she was on the right track. With every nod of approval her eyes brightened a bit more. At the end of the exercise I gave her a big hug and she smiled- still not having said a single word. Sometimes we don’t need to say anything; we need to just be.
During our worksheet exercise some of the children colored in the letter “q”. I’d seen this done before by my young son when he was learning the alphabet and explained to them that a “q” just looks like a backwards “p” and is easy to get mixed up (I’m no scholar or teacher so please forgive if this was totally left-field; I was operating purely in Mommy-mode at this point!) They laughed as we talked about “p” being opposite of “q” and we can’t let that “q” mess up our “p”. Just like Persistence is the opposite of Quitting; just like we strive to Persevere as opposed to becoming Querulous. We cannot let Q get in the way of our P, just as these children’s parents have shown us they haven’t.
Parenting is hard. Period. Some of us began along this path earlier than others and some of us had a lot more help along the way but I’ve found that regardless of beginning circumstances, in the deepest recesses of our hearts, we all dream for our children to reach destinations that surpass our own. Some of our parents loved us to the moon and back but for reasons beyond our earthly scope of understanding it wasn’t enough to push us, and them, over the threshold of pain and poor choices that sometimes hindered our progress as families. Porter-Leath, and everyone whose hearts are firmly planted in its mission, understands that sometimes when there isn’t a sufficient push, hands must be extended to pull up, to hold steady and sometimes even to hug. Because this really isn’t about hand-offs or handouts; it’s about helping our fellow human beings.
If you would like to help, please visit www.porterleath.org