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Mel Gravely

A Personal Head Start Story: Karla Johnson

Head Start – Making a Difference in Three Generations

By Karla Johnson

A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives. – Franklin D. Roosevelt

Imagine becoming a grandmother at the age of 35 and your daughter being pregnant at age twelve. Some may say this situation is not uncommon in today’s society. However, from my generation, having a child under age thirteen is relatively rare. For my family, this was one of the most difficult times of our lives. My daughter gave birth at age thirteen; impacting several lives and ultimately changing her life and mine in endless ways.

Not having had an infant in my home for over a decade, I had many concerns and a multitude of questions. I needed answers to help me resolve my feelings about my daughter’s pregnancy and unborn child. What am I going to do? How do I feel about my daughter? Where do we go for assistance? Can my young daughter be a good parent? How will this affect my child psychologically? What/who will be my support system? Not sure of what to do, I contemplated putting the baby up for an adoption. After all, I had a baby daughter preparing to give birth to a baby herself.

Now, as I reflect, this has been one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences for my family. Somehow we made it through the sleepless nights, the hiccups, the toothaches and all those dirty diapers to get to where we are today. Gradually we came to see the miracle that we had.

When my granddaughter turned three, she was accepted into Social Development Commission Head Start program. I remember walking in the school located on the northwest side of Milwaukee and being greeted by Ms. Georgia, a caring and supportive staff. She gave me a hug and said, “Welcome to Head Start!” Tears began to roll down my face. She whispered in my ear, “It will be alright, I understand your circumstances. We are here for you and your granddaughter will be taken care of.” This is where I first experienced the true meaning of “Making a Difference”.

Head Start through its teaching, learning, nurturing and growth opportunities provided a solid foundation for my granddaughter and daughter and even for me. I was privileged to participate in events as the grandmother since my daughter was a minor. Parent engagement opportunities, workshops on critical issues, useful resource information and strong relationships with the teachers and family advocates equipped me for the problems my family encountered.

While I gave all I had to help my daughter, I could not do it be myself. Head Start became our support system. The staff worked extensively with my daughter providing her with guidance and direction, motivating her to overcome the hard times and to learn to be her best. Head Start was there to provide my daughter with that extra support she needed to face the challenges of being a preteen mother. Now a decade later, we can look back with pride of what we accomplished working together and we can acknowledge the debt we owe Head Start.

Because of the support she received, a situation that could have put my daughter on the wrong path inspired her to excel. Not only did my daughter graduate from middle school and high school with honors, she is now obtaining her bachelor degree and is giving back to her community. She is the leader of an entrepreneur initiative called “I Am The Exception,” where she mentors and helps teen mothers by providing services and connecting them to an array of resources. Although society considers my daughter and other preteen moms merely a statistic, my daughter considers herself, “The Exception”!

My granddaughter is now in the 7th grade and has excellent academic skills in addition to great social and athletic skills. She has maintained honor roll status for the last six years. Recently, she received a 4.0 and was recognized in the top 10 of her class. Occasionally, I take her back to Head Start so she can remember where she first received her early education and development. She fondly remembers Ms. Georgia, Ms. Brenda, Ms. Deona and Ms. Valerie.

Because of the Head Start program’s level of commitment to early childhood development and the impact the program has on countless lives, I am confident that the program is an essential piece to the beginning of children’s lives. Head Start has unquestionably made a difference in the lives of three generations in my family: A Grandmother, A Daughter, and Granddaughter.

– On behalf of my family and I – We Honor and Salute Head Start Programs Everywhere!



  1. Lore Pierzchala says:

    I am proud of you daughter as of you for sticking by her and your granddaughter. I am so glad Head Start was there for you, just as it was for me.

    • Deborah Tisdale says:

      I salute you and your family, especially your daughter for realizing that even in the midst of adversity, you can be the exception!!! It is success stories like this that keep me coming to work at the Baltimore City Head Start Grantee Office everyday.

  2. Yvette Dobbs says:

    Great Story Karla…What a success story you are! And a blessing to the Milwaukee Community.

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