Head Start is a federal program for low-income families, offered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Within the Office of Head Start there is Migrant and Seasonal Head Start, which provides childcare to migrant farmworkers' children, and Early Head Start, which is childcare for infants and children up to 3 years of age, giving priority to foster and homeless children and children with special needs.
Before migrating to the United States in 1985, Fregoso worked at a bank in her hometown of Guanajuato, Mexico. She originally just planned to visit her brother in California for a month, but fell in love with the U.S. –– and Santiago, her husband.
After living through an earthquake and witnessing the effects of gang violence, Fregoso and her husband decided to move their new family to Erwin, Tennessee, in 1987. There, she started as a teaching assistant for the migrant program before she was promoted to teacher, then to an education specialist. After that, she said she worked as a center director before becoming regional coordinator for the Tri-Cities. She has also been a board member for the National Migrant & Seasonal Head Start Association.
Later, she moved to Kingsport and earned her associate degree in early childhood development from Walters State and Northeast State community colleges. Fregoso became a U.S. citizen in 1999.
After the Telamon Corp. extended its Head Start services to Elizabethton in September 2015, Fregoso became the center director to establish the program. Soon, Carter County's Telamon Head Start Program is moving to a new facility about half a mile from Northeast State’s Elizabethton campus.
Until the building is completed, the program is housed in a colorful mobile home behind East River Park Christian Church. Walking through the construction site in fall 2016, when the new facility was just bare bones, this woman of the Christian faith sees the project's potential.
"I went knocking on doors looking for a building to rent. I didn't stop until I found someone that would rent us the space."
– Silvia Fregoso
"This is just proof of what God can do," she said, beaming at the concrete foundation and pointing to where her new office will be in January 2017.
The new facility is just a small testament to Fregoso's work ethic. Acquiring a new space that meets a list of state and federal regulations, required patience and a labor of love.
"I went knocking on doors looking for a building to rent," she said. "I didn't stop until I found someone that would rent us the space."
Kem Richardson, owner of Richardson Design Builders, wasn't just willing to let Carter County's Telamon Head Start rent a space in one of his buildings; he offered to build the program’s customized facility to meet the government's standards.
"The amount of support the program has from the community is really nice," Fregoso said. "When you tell people you provide free childcare and preschool with free meals and diapers, they seem in awe that something like this really exists and are usually willing to help us the best they can."
According to a 2014 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, 24.6 percent of Carter County residents live in poverty.
"The community benefits from these programs because it helps the children get a good start to their education and the parents can work and not worry about childcare, which can be very expensive,” said Fregoso.
Children who participate in these programs are more likely to successfully graduate from college, according to a report by Lauren Bauer and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach for the Brookings Institution. An increase in self-esteem is also seen in adults who participated in Head Start programs.
Fregoso's two children are grown now, but the got their educational start in the Head Start program. Her children are graduates of East Tennessee State University and are pursuing additional degrees at universities in Tennessee and Colorado. Between the two of them, they have given Fregoso four grandchildren.
One of the great joys of Fregoso's career has been watching all of her children grow up.
"My relationships with the families is really rewarding," said Fregoso. "Every day I look forward to seeing the [children's] little faces. They're so happy, and so beautiful and unique, precious souls. It can't compare to anything else."
In dedicating over two decades of her life to the program, Fregoso sees her former Head Start children as adults working at a variety of jobs in the area.
"It is really rewarding to see them pursue the higher education because that's Head Start's goal," she said. "I see them working at the health center and going to school at ETSU."
Although Fregoso has only known Head Start parent Lori Canup for a year, their professional and personal relationship is strong.
"Silvia is absolutely wonderful to work with," Canup said. "We enrolled my son Kyren here last year and she has been great at getting this program started."
Canup is greatly involved in her son's Head Start program by serving as president of the parent committee and as a member of the attendance and policy council committee.
"I love this program and everything it stands for," she said. "Even though this program has only been around for a year, it has had a great impact on the community."
Dolly and Josh Jamison are the parents of 2-year-old twin boys, who both have autism.
"Head Start is not just a daycare," said Dolly. "Our sons are non-verbal autistic and this program has been helping them learn sign language. That's how we communicate with them at home. We are so thankful for Silvia and this program and how it's helping our sons with their future."
Photos, left: Silvia Fregoso stands where the future playground will be in 2017. (Photo: Jordan Hensley)
Top right: Fregoso, Head Start teachers and children join John Abe Teague, district director for the 1st Congressional District, builder Kem Richardson and Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey at the groundbreaking of the new Head Start facility in Elizabethton. (Contributed by Silvia Fregoso)
Top left: Fregoso shows the tricycle track outside the new facility.
Right: Fregoso plays with one of her Head Start children during a parent-student football game in September.
Bottom: Fregoso with her friend and colleague, Lori Canup, at the construction site of the new Head Start facility. (Photos: Jordan Hensley)