As her son Amari turns through the well-worn pages of his favorite Pete the Cat book, eyeing the colorful pictures and singing softly to himself about the cat’s shoes, Ameesha Jackson looks on, her eyes lighting up.
“He’s such a good kid, so bright,” she says. “Night and day, he’s always begging for me to read that book with him. Anyone who asks him about Pete the Cat, they better be ready for a long conversation because that’s Amari’s favorite.”
But the four-year-old wasn’t always nose deep in a picture book or comfortable chatting about his favorite character. “He stuttered and he was a really shy kid. He wouldn’t open up and I thought I he would struggle to get up to speed for school. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough for him,” Ameesha explains.
That all changed when Ameesha connected with Parent Child Plus, an organization that provides home-based training and resources that equip parents to embrace their role as their child’s first teacher and effectively and engagingly prepare their youngsters to start school ready to learn. The organization is part of United Way’s focus on ending poverty giving kids the foundation they need to succeed in school and stay on track to a lifetime of possibility.
“Amari connected almost immediately to the specialist who came to our home. Their rapport was incredible,” Ameesha recalls. “And the effect of the program on Amari…it helped him tremendously. He talked better and stopped stuttering. He learned to love reading. He has so much more confidence and his teachers have commented on how ready, eager and excited he is to learn.”
And Ameesha was empowered to be a part of that growth. “The best part was that we both got something out of it. He flourished and I learned how to help empower that part of him. I learned to encourage him, how to slow down and let him set the pace so he’s in the best position to learn. Some of the best takeaways I learned were to have Amari ‘read’ the story back to me by using the pictures – he has a great imagination! – and to ask him questions at the end of a book to see what parts he really understood.”
“Someone taught me what I could do to give my son the best start, and now I have the same opportunity to help someone else.”
The program was life changing for Amari, who is now thriving in preschool – but also for Ameesha, who joined Parent Child Plus to work as a specialist for the program. “I love my job, it’s empowering,” Ameesha reflects. “Someone taught me what I could do to give my son the best start, and now I have that same opportunity to help someone else. It’s an incredible feeling.”
Her experience as a participant in the program builds trust and credibility among the parents she supports. “Sharing my story lets me connect with them,” she explains. “They know my story, that I was a mom first before I was a specialist. They know I sat in their shoes not that long ago so I understand where they’re coming from. I show them pictures and tell them about how much Amari’s changed and they get excited at the possibilities for their own children.”
Being a part of helping other parents and their children unlock those possibilities is something Ameesha takes pride in. “It melts my heart to see the kids excited to see me and to be a part of their progress,” she says. “I come in with books and education toys and just have fun. The kids don’t realize they are learning – it’s just playtime to them – but I get to see that change over time and have an impact they don’t even realize. I always think of one little girl in particular. She didn’t talk, only mumbled nonsense and had a hard time understanding what she was being asked to do. But not she talks, she sings, she follows her mom’s instructions. It’s so rewarding to see that.”
And because Parent Child Plus takes a community-based approach to their work, Ameesha is working with families in her own neighborhood, helping to establish relationships and build community from the ground up.
To top it off, working as a specialist gives Ameesha a unique opportunity – to be a part of the workforce and help support her family by making a difference for others in her community while also being present for her own children.
“It’s the best of both worlds. I can still cook for my family, go to events at my kids’ schools and be there for my sons. Life hasn’t missed a beat since I took this job and I love that I’m supporting my children and helping empower other families while not having to give up what matters most to me.”