Maui Economic Opportunity Head Start summer lead teacher Evelyn Del Valle greeted children and their parents at the door on a recent Friday morning, a few yards away from the other Head Start classroom at Luana Gardens, where she and her parents participated in the same ritual two decades ago.
Del Valle, 24, has come full circle with MEO Head Start, the preschool program offered to income eligible families, individuals in temporary shelter, foster children and others – without charge to them. She was a shy youth, who spoke mostly Spanish, when she attended the MEO Head Start Kahului A site.
Today, she is an articulate, confident Head Start teacher, who earned her early childhood education associate degree from the University of Hawaiʻi Maui College in May while working as a Head Start teacher aide. She checked in youth at the Kahului B site, keeping an eye out for coughs and sniffles and other health issues, and later played with plastic dinosaurs with one of her students.
“I still have memories of field trips and times that teachers were playing with me,” she said. “I remember that everything we do is worth it and has importance.”
Head Start assistant teacher Said Akaou had a profound influence on her life from 2002-04, using his Spanish to help her open up and thrive. Paying it forward, Del Valle does the same with Spanish-speaking children and parents today. The assistant teacher and student got to work together a couple of years ago at the UHMC site, a thrill for both Akaou and Del Valle.
Akaou retired in May but was there for Del Valle when she received her degree.
Del Valle credits Akaou and the Head Start team with providing her a “stepping stone” to kindergarten and regular school. Head Start improved her English skills and confidence and got her into the routine of riding the bus to school.
For her parents, the program allowed them to hold down jobs, knowing that their daughter was in a safe learning environment. And in the spirit of Head Start and building strong families and parents, her Dad became one of few male Head Start leaders at the time.
Working with children has been a calling for Del Valle. She babysat neighbors’ and her Mom’s co-workers’ children, as well as her nieces and friends of their family. At 15, she volunteered at her church, teaching Sunday School in Spanish.
Unemployed during the pandemic, Del Valle began looking for a job in a preschool environment.
“When I was job-seeking, I saw the (Head Start) job listing, and it felt very perfect,” Del Valle said, adding that Head Start came highly recommended. Plus, MEO was one of the places her Dad wanted her to work.
Del Valle started as a teacher aide in October 2020 at the UH-Maui College site. Amid a shortage of lead teachers to manage Head Start sites, especially in the wake of the pandemic, she decided to pursue her associate degree in early childhood education.
“Working 40 hours and trying to go to school is hard,” admitted Del Valle, who took lots of night classes while maintaining her day job as a teacher aide.
An advantage of working at UH-Maui College and MEO Head Start was the ability to complete her practicum while being a teacher aide, she said.
With her degree in hand, Del Valle will be the lead teacher at the Wailuku B site at Wailuku Elementary School in the new school year. She had been hesitant to accept a lead teacher position, but her summer experience at her old stomping ground at Luana Gardens gave her the confidence to manage a site.
This is a critical development for MEO Head Start, which has had to close a few sites on Maui in the wake of the pandemic due to a lack of qualified teachers to be in charge of sites. This has reduced student enrollment.
When asked if she would recommend becoming an MEO Head Start teacher to others, Del Valle replied: “With my whole heart.” One of her joys is “knowing that I work in a program that gives true quality care for the whole child.”
Her goal is to be as influential in her students’ lives as Akaou and her other Head Start teachers have been for her.
“I value and see importance in respecting the children,” Del Valle said. “I feel that it is common for people to think that ‘respect is earned,’ but in my opinion, everyone should be respected and especially children because that’s how they learn about respect.”
Anyone interested in joining Head Start as a teacher or teacher aide, call 808-243-4310 or email hr.meoinc.org. Positions are available, and MEO does provide support for educational growth.
For more information about Head Start, call 808-249-2988.