After extracting herself and her son, Jamel, from a bad situation with her ex-husband — and having to move in with her mother — Walker learned of a job opening at Bright Beginnings from Hillary Garner, the school’s deputy director of programming. They attend the same church, the Temple of Praise.
Before joining the staff at Bright Beginnings in 2018, Walker worked as a receptionist at a hair salon. But memories of working with special needs children — as she did just after high school — stayed with her.
“My background has been in administration, but I love, love, love children,” she said.
Now she’s a substitute teacher at Bright Beginnings. She fills other roles at the school, too, and works there about 40 hours a week. Because she has had to overcome challenges, Walker feels she can relate to the parents, many of whom raise their children on their own, struggle to find work or secure affordable housing.
“We’re sort of coming from the same boat,” she tells them. “I struggle just like you struggle. If I can make it out of that, so can you.”
Part of a being a Bright Beginnings teacher is keeping an eye on the moms and dads.
“We tell our teachers, ‘Get to know your parents, just like you get to know your kids,’ ” she said. “It can be something as simple as, ‘Hey mom, how’s everything today? How’re you feeling? Come talk to me. Why you got that look on your face?’
“So much will come out of those few little words.”
Sometimes, what looks like bad news can be the opposite. Walker used to notice the mother of one student around the school all the time, dropping and picking up her child and volunteering in the classroom. When Walker hadn’t seen her for a while, she feared the worst.
“I said, ‘I haven’t seen you. Where have you been?’
“She said, ‘Girl, I’m working now.’ ”
The woman had landed a job at a grocery store.
“That Friday, I was smiling all day,” Walker said. “I pride myself on small victories. The big victories are big things, but it’s the day-by-days — the ‘phew, I got through the day’ days — those small victories get me through.”
Walker hadn’t been working at Bright Beginnings long before Garner asked where her son, Jamel, then 2, went to school. At the time, he was in a home-based day care. It was expensive and not as stimulating as Walker wanted for Jamel. So she switched Jamel to Bright Beginnings. He’s blossomed there.
“The old day care was not a structured as Bright Beginnings,” she said. “Here, he has had not only the structure, but they have helped with his social and emotional skills. He has really soared.
“I want my son to be part of a program where they show him how to move along, but also I want him to be part of a family. That’s what Bright Beginnings has turned into for us.”
Walker is on track to gain her child development associate certification in December. Then she’s hoping to start college. She thinks she might like to open her own school one day.
“I knew that I wanted to better myself before, but now that I’m a mother, I want to better myself for my son,” she said.
Helping things get better
To contribute by mail, make a check payable to “Bright Beginnings” and send it to: Bright Beginnings, Attn: Helping Hand, 3418 Fourth St. SE, Washington, D.C. 20032.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.