Giving Kids a Head Start

In 1998, when she learned she was pregnant, Nicole Smith was 17. Her parents—especially her pastor father—were devastated. Classmates gave her sideways glances in the hallway. “I was absolutely terrified,” Smith recalls.

Luckily, she discovered New Directions Early Head Start (NDEHS) at the University of Delaware. The program helped the teen through her pregnancy and early years of motherhood, providing everything from breastfeeding guidance to childcare resources to cooking lessons.

“I’m a firm believer that it takes a village, and this was the beginning of mine,” says Smith, who went on to earn a master’s degree and work in the Brandywine School District as a behavioral technician. “My entire journey—the education I was able to receive, the career path I’ve chosen now—that was all shaped by NDEHS.”

This is one of thousands of testimonials to come out of the landmark program, which serves about 200 families per year and celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2023. A branch of the federal Early Head Start initiative (the only of its kind at a college or university in Delaware), UD’s program nurtures healthy attachments between parents and children ages 1–3, a crucial time for brain development.

“This period sets the trajectory for the future,” says Heidi Beck, program director. “We cannot do enough to support this demographic.

Specialists visit caregivers in their homes to assess developmental delays in infants or provide training on myriad topics, from introducing solid foods to taming sibling jealousy.

And they connect families with resources—for obtaining better housing, continuing an education or promoting the cognitive, physical and social wellbeing of a child. NDEHS specialists also work hand-in-hand with childcare providers at various facilities throughout the state. The goal is to marry the child development expertise on UD’s campus with the community expertise abundant within these organizations.

“When we started this, programs at other universities were often going into a place to do work for a community,” Beck says. “We collaborate in partnership with a community, and that has made all the difference.”

Case in point: NDEHS relies on a policy council and a board of directors comprising participating parents, past and present. Members help shape the curriculum, the budget and the very mission of the organization. All these years later, Smith is still actively involved: “I’ve always felt like my voice mattered,” she says. “The care and compassion within NDEHS is genuine.”

Today, Smith’s son, Sayvon Willis, HS22, is a recent UD graduate working to establish greater youth programming in Wilmington as part of the Public Allies AmeriCorps program. Her two younger children, also NDEHS participants, are enrolled in college and set on their own paths to success—a reality Smith is unlikely to ever take for granted.

“Without NDEHS, my children and I might have ended up statistics,” she says. “My overwhelming feeling is gratitude.”

Read this article on UD Magazine.

Article by Diane Stopyra. Photo courtesy of Diane Stopyra.