Homeless to regional director: Success story from Northwest Tennessee Economic Development Council
Rakaya Humphreys is the director for Head Start for Northwest Tennessee Economic Development Council.
She’s the coordinator for the Head Start program for 13 counties, serving nearly 1,200 children with early education and helping ensure families are self-sufficient while they’re in the program.
Humphreys has a lot of experience with the program.
But being the director is something she could’ve only dreamed about 20 years ago when she was homeless, not knowing what to do with her life as a young mother and searching for direction.
Head Start became her calling.
Moving up the ladder
Not only has she been an employee of Head Start for 20 years, she was one who was served by the program.
“I’ve been with it since 2000,” Humphreys said. “I got started right after I graduated from Bethel College (now University).
“I got pregnant during my final semester, and I continued to live with my college roommate and stay here instead of moving back home to Memphis because I wouldn’t have been able to afford housing.”
Humphreys’ first job out of college was serving as a family advocate at Washington-Douglass Head Start in East Jackson. She served there for a year before transferring to a similar position with Head Start in Huntingdon.
While she was working in Huntingdon, Humphreys’ other role as a member of the Army Reserve called her away from home and work as she was deployed in Iraq for a year.
“Fortunately my mom, Lucy Maggit, was able to move to Carroll County and took over the family care plan for my son, which allowed him to continue in Head Start when he was 3 and 4 years old,” Humphreys said. "She made so many sacrifices for me, and this was another."
When she returned from Iraq, she was soon promoted to assistant coordinator for the Weakley County/Huntingdon Head Start site and served there for three years before receiving another promotion in 2007 to become the center program coordinator for Weakley County and then the area manager three years after that in 2010.
“In that role, I oversaw pre-K programs and some site centers in Benton County, Henry County and Carroll County,” Humphreys said. “It was a challenging role, and all of them have been as I’ve took on more responsibility and had to learn new skills.
“But it was a rewarding experience that I enjoyed for six years.”
Humphreys’ career took a slight turn in 2016 when she was promoted to compliance manager for all of Northwest Tennessee Head Start, where her job was to ensure all regulation policies were being followed and no programs were deficient in service areas while also promoting health and safety in all of the region’s sites.
The role transitioned to operations manager, and that added supervising all 17 site coordinators and also developing programs to ensure staff had correct qualifications and credentials to provide development for their chosen programs.
It was then in January of this year when she was promoted to the director position for all of Northwest Tennessee.
“I feel like I got plenty of experience over the previous 20 years as a parent, family advocate, consultant for Camelot to help in outreach for children at risk and connect with their families and figure out ways to help all involved,” Humphreys said. “For the families whose children are in the program, I can tell them I’ve been where they are and have dealt with similar issues that a lot of them are dealing with and my children came out on the other side better.
“My family came out on the other side better because of this program, and that’s why I believe in it so much.”
Humphreys said becoming a social science major while at Bethel was not her first choice. She planned to get into the medical field when she started college.
“But I struggled in chemistry, and I really thrived in social science classes,” Humphreys said. “So when I found myself in the situation I was in at graduation, I can look back at that time now and see that God was calling me into a field where I could do what I was supposed to do – give back and serve families that were experiencing poverty.
“I experienced that too growing up in Memphis. I grew up homeless, and my mom was young when she had me, so we almost grew up together.”
Humphreys said she witnessed domestic violence when she was a child, and she and her mother were displaced multiple times.
“I never knew about Head Start, and there was no awareness of the services that were available to me,” Humphreys said.
Continuing to serve
Now in her role leading Northwest Tennessee Head Start – particularly as families struggle in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic – she wants to make sure no child in the region grows up ignorant of the services available to them like she did.
“We want to let people know about what is available to them,” Humphreys said. “We want to help parents become self-sufficient and get them in position to reach their career goals.
“I didn’t realize Head Start had this capability when I first came. I was just excited to have a job after graduation that paid me $10 an hour.”
Humphreys said her vision has changed from helping herself and her own family to helping others.
“I believe this program is essential as we’re providing services for families that for whatever reason are in a position where they can’t help themselves,” Humphreys said. “If they’re running out of formula for their baby, then we want to be there to help as much as we can if they can’t take care of that themselves.
“We’ve kept a watchful eye on families to make sure domestic violence hasn’t become an issue while everyone has had to stay at home. Taking care of families and making sure the children and their parents have every opportunity available to them is our goal, and that’s what we strive to do every day.”