James McBride knows exactly what he and his sons would be doing without the Lower Columbia College Head Start Program: Struggling.
They'd likely still be living with McBride's parents and he doubts either boy would be prepared for school. And McBride, 40, would still be battling with depression and keeping to himself.
Instead, McBride is the Head Start's National Father of the Year. His boys are thriving and McBride said he's discovered new self-confidence and purpose in life.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime achievement," the LCC automotive technology student said Friday. "A lot of attention is put on single moms and you don't hear as much about single dads. ...So to be recognized is incredible.
"It's great to hear out of all these people ‘You are the best,' " he said.
The LCC Head Start program has two national award winners this year — something director Sandy Junker called "thrilling." Norpac also won Head Start's National Corporate Award. (See related story).
"To think they're both from little Cowlitz County and won the national award, that's just amazing," Junker said.
Through Head Start McBride went from being a man afraid to talk at his first Head Start parents meeting to a state Head Start Parent Ambassador who has visited with federal lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and testified before the state legislature in Olympia.
"Without Head Start I'd never have had the courage to talk to people I have," he said. "I used to think ‘I'm just a mechanic,' but now I know I'm also an informed parent and an advocate. It's opened so many facets of my life it's not even funny. ... Because of the ambassador program I found my voice. And I found a passion I never knew I had. I'm not afraid to speak out anymore and that's so empowering."
That's the beauty of the Head Start program, McBride said. While primarily focused on getting children in low-income families ready for school, it also helps parents improve their family and their lives.
"It's a lot about confidence building and team building," McBride said. "They don't just help the kids, they help everybody."
McBride, for example, was living in a room in his parents' house when he first signed eldest son Gabriel up for the program two years ago. Family Advocate Kristen Nunes asked about family goals and McBride said he and the boys wanted their own place. Nunes kept mentioning "For Rent" signs she'd seen and giving him the classified section of the newspaper to look for others.
"She wasn't going to let me slack off on that goal and it paid off," he said. "My boys and me have had our own apartment for a year now."
McBride, a Desert Storm veteran, graduates from LCC in three weeks and hopes to someday own his own auto repair shop.
And as for his sons, 6-year-old Gabriel won a good behavior award as a kindergartner at Robert Gray Elementary. Xander, 3, has started Head Start and is also described by his father as thriving.
"(Without Head Start) I don't think Gabriel would be reading yet and he's so proud of the fact that he can read," McBride said. "Both of my boys are very bright, but without Head Start they wouldn't be as far as they are."
Both boys also benefited from the Ready for Kindergarten program at Beacon Hill Elementary that McBride learned about though a Parents Place support group for fathers. He joined after meeting a group leader through Head Start, McBride said.
As proud as he is of his Head Start award, McBride is also worried about the future of the program and the families that come behind him.
Deep cuts are proposed on both the national and state levels and McBride said he can't fathom cutting off services to children and families who need such fundamental assistance. He's written state and federal lawmakers about his concerns.
"It's very scary," he said. "People are going to lose their jobs and kids are going to be losing out on just a phenomenal program."