Section: Features

Students reflect on volunteering at Knox County Head Start

Walk ten minutes east from the center of Kenyon’s campus, and you’ll find that undergrads aren’t the only kids in town. The Gambier Child Care Center, one of six locations run by Knox County Head Start, offers full-day and full-year early education, social and health services out of the Gambier Community Center. Fifty percent of the children served by the center have a parent working for Kenyon.

The Knox County Head Start program began in 1965. Its connection to Kenyon is just as long standing, according to current Executive Director Peg Tazewell ’03. Professor Emeritus of Economics Bruce L. Gensemer was on the founding board of the Kokosing Day Care Center, Head Start’s predecessor. Professor of Religious Studies Rev. Donald Rogan and Sally Rogan, his wife, were early volunteers and participated in the grant writing process that led to the center’s incorporation into the federal Head Start program. Since then, Kenyon faculty, staff, campus organizations and individual students have fundraised on behalf of Knox County Head Start — notably through 31 iterations of the Shawn Kelly Memorial Party — and volunteered to lead various enrichment activities.

Knox County Head Start, as well as similar programs across the country, are designed to serve children impacted by poverty. “When I speak to Kenyon students, I try to shine a light on the stark differences between life on the Hill and in Knox County. In 2022, a child from a family of four with an income at $27,750 or below could qualify for Head Start services, but our average qualifying income for last year (for a family of four) was $16,788 — just 65% of the federal poverty guidelines,” Tazewell wrote in an email to the Collegian. “Head Start works to mitigate [the] impact [of trauma and poverty], and to provide a warm, safe and loving environment in which children may learn. We engage with the entire family.”

One Head Start volunteer, Hannah Ehrlich ’26, originally intended to assist an afterschool program at the Gambier Head Start location in the fall, but was offered a role as a teacher’s aide in both their Head Start and Early Head Start programs. Beyza Aydin ’26 learned about an opening at the Mount Vernon location from her STEM mentor at Kenyon and worked there for the summer. Both had childcare experience prior to the job — Ehrlich interned at afterschool programs and Aydin babysat children and her brother —  but never with as many children or such a young age group.

Though the responsibilities of the role may sound simple — passing out materials, supervising playtime and playing with the kids — working with children requires a lot of training and energy. Head Start requires volunteers and workers to pass a background check and undergo training before they interact with the children. Teachers’ aides like Ehrlich and Aydin help the classroom “make ratio” — the legally required number of adults that must be in the room to take care of the children. “When I’m there, it allows [staff] to take longer breaks,” Ehrlich explained. “They definitely have a lot on their hands, and I want to be there as much as I can.” 

The experience involves significant emotional labor. The staff at Head Start practice a technique called conscious discipline, which emphasizes the boundaries of acceptable behavior while communicating kindly. “Patience was probably the number one word of the summer,” Aydin reflected. “You have to regulate your own emotions so that you can help this child regulate. There were times where I would have to literally stop myself, take a deep breath, be like, ‘This is a five year old you’re talking to. Chill out,’ and then continue.” Then there was the physical exhaustion. “My boys would climb on me,” Aydin said. “One time I was like, ‘Do I look like a tree to you?’ And they go, ‘Yep.’”

While many Kenyon students come to college seeking independence, Aydin and Ehrlich embraced the duties inherent in care work. Aydin was impressed by how quickly the children came to rely on her. “They just immediately trusted me, and I was like, ‘Oh my God. Whatever I do, I cannot break that trust.’” Ehrlich takes the responsibility to show up for the children and colleagues she works with at Head Start seriously. “In the end, it’s not an extracurricular. These are real kids,” Ehrlich said. “If you’re not there every week, they’re going to wonder why you were gone for a certain gap of time.” 

Both Aydin and Ehrlich welcomed the break from college life that Head Start presented to them. “Three-year-olds are my favorite people in the world,” Aydin said. “They’re still babies, but they can talk and for the most part can go to the bathroom on their own, which is great.” Though Ehrlich works in Gambier, she still finds her 10-minute walk from campus to offer a change in perspective. “It reminds me that I’m in the world and there are other people around. And it’s fun to connect with people who aren’t just my age or doing the same things I’m doing.”

“It’s honestly, like, a kind of a switch that I have to do: my childcare self versus my college [self],” Ehrlich explained with a smile. “I’ll come back to Peirce [Dining Hall] right after my shift, and I’ll see my friends and want to say things like, ‘Thank you for using your words.’” 

Ehrlich started her job soon after beginning her first year of college. “Kenyon can definitely be a bubble sometimes,” she said. “Because a lot of people are surprised that Head Start is even here.” Ehrlich found that meeting the children of staff and faculty helped her know the Knox and Kenyon communities better. 

Even though Aydin grew up in Knox County, working at Head Start gave her a new perspective on her experience growing up in the area and the discrimination she experienced as a hijabi woman. “I was a kid when I saw the transition from kids being curious about my hijab to being scared of my hijab,” Aydin said. “I saw even more with my babies because like, none of them were scared of me. They were always, like, curious.” 

Care labor tends to be economically undervalued, but Aydin and Ehrlich experience the less quantifiable rewards: getting to know the kids, learning from the staff and growing their skillset. “When I was a kid, I always needed help with a bunch of stuff, like tying shoes or jackets,” Ehrlich said. “I like to give back in that way.” 

Aydin concluded, “Kids are angels, even when they’re being… difficult.”


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