From Head Start Parent to Director
Amor a Todas Horas, is the name of a painting that hangs on the wall of Díana Martínez’s new office. In the image, a mother cradles an infant in her arms as she gazes through a window onto a vast landscape. This image hung prominently in her first home, and while this is not the same copy, she has carried the image and the idea it represents with her on the long journey that led to her new job as the director of Head Start at The Family Conservancy (TFC).
Sixteen years ago, with a husband, home, college degree and new born baby, Martínez was a stay-at-home mom, well on her way to what could have easily been mistaken for a dream come true. But life is often more complicated than it appears from the outside looking in, and change is never more than one difficult decision away. For Martínez, that decision was divorce.
It was a difficult decision that meant trading her home and nearly all her possessions for an $8-per-hour job and small apartment. Thankfully, she was able to find child care. It was not easy, but she was making it work, and was determined that this was merely a stepping stone.
Martínez recalls, “My Head Start story started with the family advocate at the center calling me and asking, ‘do you want to save $50 a week?’ For someone who didn’t have a lot of money, I was like, ‘yeah, what do you want me to do?’”
This small savings attracted the attention of a mother in a tight financial situation, and put her on a life-changing course. Just a few weeks after enrolling in Head Start, being the type that has trouble saying “no,” Martínez begrudgingly volunteered to represent her center on TFC’s Head Start Policy Committee . “Raising my hand that night is really what changed my life, because when I started getting involved in the meeting and attending the leadership opportunities, that is when I realized what I was a part of. Initially, I was just trying to save some money. I had no idea what Head Start was.” said Martínez.
Serving on the committee Martínez got to know many of her fellow parents at the center. On the committee, she began to see a role for herself. She saw miscommunication and misunderstanding, especially from the parents with limited English proficiency. She realized Spanish/English bilingualism made her a valuable asset to the committee and to her program.
During her tenure as a representative for her center, Martínez helped develop policies to support English language learners. “I had a passion for serving others. Being bilingual, and at a center with a predominantly Latinx population, I realized I could advocate for individuals who weren’t at the table.”
When the family advocate position opened at Martínez’s center, the director asked her to apply. With the relationships she had formed with center parents, and after learning the position offered benefits, vacation and a pay increase, she was convinced it was a good move for her and her son.
As a family advocate, Martínez helped parents navigate challenges, set goals and build stable, supportive environments for their children. Day after day she saw individuals facing challenges that were familiar to her. She approached each situation with a contagious passion for the program, and respect and understanding that is difficult, if not impossible, to find without shared experiences.
Working directly with the parents and reflecting on her own experience with the program, Martínez began to see the unique value of Head Start and aimed to help parents take advantage, “Before I became involved in Head Start, I would ask my son what he did at child care, and I was disappointed when he replied that he played. … As a mother, one of the biggest things I took away from Head Start was learning to take responsibility for being my child’s first teacher, and that play is much more than passing time. I hope all the parents I work with come to that same realization.”
After two years as a family advocate, Martínez found an opportunity to advance her career by taking a job with TFC. In her new role, she oversaw the eligibility, recruitment, selection, enrollment, and attendance of TFC Head Start children and families. Early on in her career at TFC, she began to see the large-scale impact of Head Start and the long term potential for the community and beyond.
After five years at TFC, looking to take the next step in her career, Martínez began pursuing a graduate degree at The University of Kansas. This allowed her to develop management and leadership skills that could be used to serve Head Start families.
In October 2018, Martínez was named the director of Head Start at The Family Conservancy. In her new role, she oversees early education programming that impacts thousands of children and families each year. As she contemplates, she often reflects on the painting, remembering the promise she made to her child, and how Head Start helped her make it a reality. As Martínez explains, “It’s a reminder that we make decisions in this office that impact people who are not at the table. It’s a reminder to ask, ‘Is it best for all children and families?’ Because that’s what sets Head Start apart, and that’s what our families deserve.”