Head Start honors Cape woman for 40 years of service

Sunday, May 3, 2009
Leola Twiggs, left, reacts with surprise at a reception honoring her 40 years with Head Start. Sandra Long, a family advocate, presents her with a special T-shirt. (Fred Lynch)

According to Leola Twiggs, hugs are one of the best parts of her job.

The children at East Missouri Action Agency in Cape Girardeau seek her out when she's not teaching, just to give her a hug. Her positions at Head Start have included site manager, bus driver and teacher. Three generations have passed through her classrooms.

"This is a surprise," Twiggs said as she took the seat of honor at the Head Start volunteer appreciation day that highlighted her 40 years of employment with Head Start. Hugs from the children followed applause.

"The first children I taught now have grandchildren," Twiggs said.

Twiggs, who plans to retire at the end of next school year, said she loves is knowing children want to come to Head Start because of her, and that they talk about her at home. She knows they do because the parents tell her.

"I'm grateful to Ms. Twiggs," said Eddie Moore, a mother in Cape Girardeau. "I didn't have the opportunity to teach (my daughter) at home."

Moore's daughter, I'Breanna, 5, will complete the Head Start program in May and move onto kindergarten.

"My daughter had her last year and when she moved up and got a different teacher, I requested she have Ms. Twiggs again. I wish she could stay in Ms. Twiggs class next year," Moore said.

Twiggs has been employed since 1969 with the Head Start program, a national not-for-profit membership organization dedicated to meeting the needs of 3 to 5 year olds and their families. Created in 1965, Head Start is the most successful, longest-running national school readiness program in the U.S., providing comprehensive education, health, nutrition and parent involvement services to low income children and their families.

Twiggs has also taught Sunday School at New Bethel Baptist Church in Cape Girardeau for many years. Before working at Head Start, she volunteered her summers at a similar program for children at Cape Civic Center from 1965 to 1968.

"I like teaching young children," Twiggs said.

The eighth child of 13, Twiggs was raised by her father and older sister after her mother died when Twiggs was 6. She has lived in Cape Girardeau since she was 3 years old and raised eight of her own children.

Pam Ayers, one of Twiggs' daughters, said her mother taught her "no matter what you go through, you can be anything you want to be."

"She has always been there for her kids," Ayers said.

"Growing up at home, my relatives always brought their kids to me. They knew I would baby-sit," Twiggs said.

She said teaching children and being involved in their lives is her calling.

"It's a part of me," she said, adding that she often wakes up thinking of what is planned for the children that day.

Not only is Twiggs appreciated by the children and their parents, but her coworkers are grateful to her for helping them with the challenges and being a great role model.

Eloise Hudson, Head Start teacher, has worked with Twiggs for at least 20 years. Hudson, like other coworkers, described Twiggs as patient and caring.

"She seems to let nothing get to her. She says she prays all the time," Hudson said. "She's an exceptional human being."

Lillian Martin, Head Start site manager, began her career at Head Start as a volunteer. She has worked with Twiggs for 25 years. Martin said she learned most of the basics -- including discipline techniques and how to work with staff -- from Twiggs.

"She's still a mentor to me," Martin said. "I look to her for advice and strategies."

Part of Twiggs' way with children stems from her philosophy of explaining and talking to children so they understand. For safety issues, she explains to children why they can or cannot do something and what could happen as a result.

"Because they are children, sometimes they need someone to explain what's inappropriate because for them it may not seem that way. I explain things to them because it helps them reach their goals," Twiggs said.

"I always smile at them and then they know I care," Twiggs said.

The $1.60 hourly minimum wage that Twiggs started at, has changed over four decades but according to her, children haven't.

"They are smart and funny and I laugh with them," Twiggs said.

"The parents are different," Twiggs said. "They are a lot younger and some don't realize they can work with their children from birth."

Twiggs plans to retire next year, in 2010, when the academic year commences. She didn't give her age, but said, "The children keep me acting young."

Parent volunteers and members of the Lynwood Baptist Chain Gang (a group that crocheted hats for the children) were also honored at the appreciation day event for their efforts.

cpagano@semissourian.com

388-3648

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