Turning the pages of a little book handmade for her daughter Anna, Vida Danso offered the 3-year-old a simple, heartfelt accounting of how much life can change in a single generation.
"When I was little, I lived in Accra, Ghana.
"Now you are little. You live in Jessup, Maryland.
"When I was little, my mother sold produce.
"Now you are little, and I work as a nursing assistant."
Danso -- who works at night and attends the Even Start Family Literacy Program in the morning with Anna, the younger of her two children -- has been an inspiration to her fellow classmates and the small staff at the program.
Danso has embraced this federally funded program, which promotes family literacy through a combination of adult education, day-care programs and parent workshops. The program, which operates from the Owen Brown Interfaith Center, is run by the county's state-funded Judy Center, which emphasizes school readiness for children and their families.
Danso, 31, never had a chance to go to high school in Africa. Through Even Start, she got a general equivalency diploma. She also earned a medical certificate, enabling her to move up to a better job, with better hours, at the assisted living center where she works in Ellicott City.
On Sunday, she donned a black cap and gown -- "They don't wear them in Africa," she mused -- and shared hugs with her family, friends and teachers at a festive diploma recognition ceremony at Howard Community College in Columbia.
"She looked so beautiful,'' Judy Center director Anne Yenchko said.
With continued help from Even Start, Danso plans to pursue a nursing degree at HCC. She and her husband, Patrick Afoakwah, a computer technician, are even hoping to buy a home.
Since Even Start began in Howard in 2004, it has helped 79 families. Organizers have been hoping to add an evening program for the many parents who work during the day, but there hasn't been enough money.
Now the very future of Even Start everywhere is in jeopardy. The local Even Start program has a $202,000 federal grant, but the Bush administration has eliminated funding in its 2006 budget. Congress is deliberating whether to restore at least part of the grant.
"I have my letters ready to go out to the senators, 'You have to help us!' " Yenchko said.
Research has shown that every dollar spent on children at risk in their early years saves $18 later in adulthood, Yenchko said. She and others are worried about the prospect of losing the funding.
"I'm keeping my fingers crossed," program manager Deidre Gonsalves said. "It's heartbreaking."
Despite Howard County's wealth, an estimated 11 percent of its residents are reading at only a third-grade level or less, Even Start officials said. They are stuck in the lowest paying jobs, unable to help their children with schoolwork. Some are native English speakers who want to advance their education.
"We help parents become partners in their children's education," Yenchko said. "It's a wonderful gift."
Dasha Greene, 17, was reading a story to daughter Totiana, 2, who was born while she was a student at Wilde Lake High School. At Even Start she is preparing to move up to HCC, where she hopes to study early childhood development.
"I have a passion for kids," she said. "I want to start my own day-care center."
Other parents go to Even Start without speaking a word of English. Little by little, with the help of pictures and prompting from teacher Mary Jane Jerde, they learn words and then sentences.
"These are parents who are expected to help their kids with all kinds of stuff, and they are very eager to do it," Jerde said.
The program offers transportation and child care, but the participants often must juggle other responsibilities and give up work hours as well.
One day a week, computer teacher Howard Lessey wheels in a trunk of supplies, including five laptop computers, and the students put on headphones and then drill intently. Lessey marvels at the resolve that students such as Ana Julia Lemus, a native of El Salvador, bring to the work.
"She is like an athlete, the way she focuses," Lessey said.
Lemus, 25, was assembling sentences from words that flashed up on the computer screen:
"First I feed the children.
"Then I make the bed.
"Then I wash the dishes."
She scored 100 percent on the practice test.
Lemus learned about Even Start at the school of her 7-year-old son, Raul. While she studies, her bright-eyed younger son, Christopher, 4, attends day care in a cheerful room down the hall.
"I came to this country when I was 15," said Lemus, who never went to high school here. She worked for a while at Taco Bell but now hopes for better opportunities
"I'd like to have a GED," she said.
She is counting on help from Even Start.