Head Start serves children by helping their parents, too.

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Head Start is a good place for parents to get an education. The always evolving program isn’t just about kids.

Children are at its center, but if you want to help children thrive, it’s best to have engaged, knowledgeable parents.

If you’re one of those people whose response to school trouble or juvenile crime is to point to the parents, then you ought to champion early-education programs like Head Start that more and more are about the whole family.

Lori Pittman, one of the many parents who have benefited from Head Start, got to tell her story at the White House last week, because she is now helping other parents. Pittman was one of 11 people from around the country who were honored as Head Start “Champions of Change.” I caught up with her this week as she was working with parents at a training session in Ellensburg.

“It was pretty surreal,” she said when I called her. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.”

Pittman became a mother at 19, which derailed her college plans. She and her husband eventually had six children and she stayed home to care for them since they figured any work she would get with only a high-school diploma probably wouldn’t pay enough to cover child care.

Pittman home-schooled the older ones until her husband (who now is a cosmetologist) was laid off from his retail sales job. They turned to public assistance, and as he looked for work the family faced stress and depression. They put the older children in public school and Pittman worried her 4-year-old wouldn’t get enough stimulation at home without his older siblings. “I looked at what might be available for him, and I found Head Start.” That was 1993 in Tacoma.

Head Start in Washington enrolled about 16,500 children from low-income families last year, and the state estimates 18,500 more are eligible, but aren’t served because of a lack of funding.

What each parent needs is different, and in Pittman’s case, what Head Start provided was confidence. “I didn’t see myself as someone who could really be successful and contribute.”

She joined the parent-policy council and through the work she did there, including helping start a Head Start program for children whose mothers were in prison, “I began to see I was a leader and that I had skills,” she said.

The experience, “changed my life, so I went back to school, because I knew I wanted to do something bigger than myself.” She was also working. In 1996 she was hired by the Puget Sound Educational Services District to be a liaison between staff and parents. It was during welfare reform and she helped incorporate employment and training advocacy into Head Start programs.

Pittman sees poverty as a destructive force on families. “If we could support and empower parents it could change our country,” by reducing poverty and improving life outcomes for children.

One day during the time her husband was unemployed, Pittman was using food stamps at the grocery store when someone in line behind her said, “‘if you didn’t have so many kids you wouldn’t have to use my taxpayer money to feed them.’ “

Those words still sting. Pittman’s voice cracked and she paused a moment. “It would be a great day if we could stop defining people by their circumstances instead of who they are,” she said. “The parents in the room I’m working with today didn’t choose their circumstances. They didn’t choose poverty. The dads in this room didn’t say, ‘When I grow up I hope to have a family I can’t care for.’ “

She believes all parents want to do what’s best for their children.

“Head Start and ECEAP [the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program] in our state give parents an opportunity to rise above their circumstances and gives them some skills that are going to help them in their parenting,” and “skills to avoid problems that lead them to trouble.”

Today she is a Head Start family-support coordinator. And she spends part of her time as Parent Ambassador Program manager for the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP.

The Ambassador Program trains 20 to 25 parents a year to be advocates for early childhood education. The parents have been credited with fending off cuts to those programs in Olympia.

Pittman said parents in the program are typically people who have been, “disenfranchised by poverty or race. They often have been in systems where they’ve not had a lot of choice or voice.” They learn they can make a difference in their personal lives, in their communities and in the state. They become better role models for their children.

The ambassadors learn what she learned, that they are more capable than they or anyone else thought. That is a head start toward a better community.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.