BEMIDJI -- Sierra Charwood is following in her mother’s footsteps as a Head Start Heroes award recipient and advocate for the community.

Sierra, a recent high school graduate, and her mother, Ashley, are also prime examples of a Bi-County Community Action Programs Head Start success story.

The resilient duo has worked hard to push through difficult circumstances with assistance from BI-CAP programs over the years. Since then, the two have realized goals to pursue advanced degrees and give back to the community. For these efforts, they were recognized statewide for their achievements with Head Start Heroes awards -- Ashley back in 2018, and Sierra just last month.

According to the Minnesota Head Start Association website, “Head Start Heroes epitomize how determination, fortitude and access to early learning and whole-family approaches can pave the way to lifelong success.”

Second-generation recipient

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For six years, Ashley served on the BI-CAP Board of Directors, which she did to give back to the programs that had helped her and her family.

“I dropped out of high school when I was 14, and then I joined the BI-CAP YouthBuild program, and then I became a teen parent with (Sierra). She went into the BI-CAP Head Start program,” Ashley explained. “We signed up for all their other programs like energy assistance, and weatherization. And so we've been really close to BI-CAP’s programs. Now we don't need them anymore, because their goal is to help people achieve self-sufficiency. And so it was really good during our young family times, helping with housing and things.”

As the parent of children who attended Head Start, Ashley was nominated and received a parent Head Start Heroes award back in 2018. With this award, she was given scholarship funds to pursue her master's degree in social work. Ashley currently works for Peacemaker Resources in Bemidji.

Now, three years later, Sierra has received the same statewide award.

Sierra graduated last month from Cass Lake Bena High School and has been studying at Bemidji State University through dual enrollment. During that time she has been active in the community -- working at the Headwaters Science Center, playing violin and volleyball, and taking part in community service, activism and cultural activities.

She was recently admitted into a prestigious new dual bachelor’s and medical school admissions program at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Her cohort is a class of nine women, mostly from diverse backgrounds, which was something that made her proud, she said.

Through this success and more, she’s been awarded statewide recognition through the Minnesota Head Start Association, a Head Start Heroes award as a BI-CAP Head Start alumna.

Though she hasn’t actually attended Head Start for more than a decade, Sierra said it holds a special place in her heart.

"When I went to Bemidji schools, and my younger siblings went to BI-CAP, I would like to drop them off with my mom. And I remember going there and making friends,” she said, recalling fondly being in the same Head Start class as her neighbor. “I just thought that I'd apply for it just because it was a good opportunity and I'm really into community action and fighting for justice."

Sierra is both Black and Indigenous and said embracing these identities has shaped her.

“One thing that's been really important to me in the past couple of years is learning my culture, spirituality and identity. It's all really, really important. I think it stems from most issues or the educational system which is lacking due to the lack of representation or diversity,” Sierra said. “I think that in order to look at that issue, and also law enforcement issues, people need to take a look at themselves and figure out their own roots, who they are, what's important to them. Then they can start pursuing other stuff using what they learned.”

How BI-CAP helped

The Charwoods are true success stories from BI-CAP Head Start because after utilizing the services of the organization, they no longer need them.

Sierra and Ashley Charwood stand together with Sierra's Head Start Hero award plaque. Submitted photo.
Sierra and Ashley Charwood stand together with Sierra's Head Start Hero award plaque. Submitted photo.

BI-CAP is a non-profit community action program that assists low-income disadvantaged families and individuals in Cass and Beltrami Counties. BI-CAP services enhance lives through a variety of programs that increase self-sufficiency by offering financial and counseling support, according to its website. BI-CAP has five programs -- Head Start, YouthBuild, Energy Assistance, Housing Support and Weatherization Assistance.

“Community action was founded in the 60s, from Lyndon B. Johnson in the war on poverty, as an effort to combat poverty. There's a Community Action Program throughout the whole nation in every single county,” Ashley said.

Head Start is a school readiness program that helps families provide the best possible opportunities for their children in preparation for Kindergarten. Programs work with families to make connections in the communities they live in, support needs and set goals.

The experience Ashley gained from YouthBuild empowered her as a parent.

“They really advocated that the parents are your child's first teacher. They never belittled me or anything. They just supported and elevated me as a parent, even as a 16-year-old, 17-year-old parent, they were like, ‘You are your child's first teacher.’ They just taught me how to better advocate for my kid within the school system.”

Ashley encourages more people to apply for BI-CAP programs.

“If people are on the fence, I would say at the center there are lots of teachers around, it's not like a private daycare,” Ashley said. “They have structure, they have curriculum, they have excellent nutritious meals. And they would always invite the families to be involved, too. In BI-CAP, they're like, ‘Come join us for breakfast, come join us for storytime.’ They really want the parents to be involved.”

She also added that there’s no cost to participate in the programs.

“That was always a benefit,” she said. “They supported the parents with their skills, working or going to school, speaking about community resources.”

Ashley said her goals for the future of Head Start in Bemidji are to improve transportation and representation.

“I think having more staff there that are reflective of the community would be great. They're really working intentionally on that, trying to recruit and retain and create a welcoming space for teachers of color. But there's always more work to be done,” she said.

About the award

According to the Minnesota Head Start Association website, it recognizes deserving individuals for exceptional growth and service to Head Start in Minnesota.

The organization sponsors a recognition program each year that honors members of the Minnesota Head Start community who overcame tremendous challenges and achieved personal and family success. These children, families, alumni and staff members have been selected by the MHSA Scholarships and Awards Committee based on compelling, personal testimonies about their Head Start experience and how they were able to transform their lives, the website said.

“It’s a statewide award, it's out of all of the community action programs in the whole state,” Ashley explained.

Going forward

Sierra hopes to pursue a career in medicine in the future, in order to reduce the racial disparities in the health care system.

“I'm not sure exactly what I want to pursue yet,” Sierra said. “I've been thinking about emergency medicine. My childhood dream was to become a surgeon.”

Sierra and Ashley Charwood stand together at Sierra's recent graduation from Cass Lake Bena High School. Submitted photo.
Sierra and Ashley Charwood stand together at Sierra's recent graduation from Cass Lake Bena High School. Submitted photo.

One thing she knows is that she hopes her path will lead her back to the area.

“The program I'm in is for rural doctors, not urban. I would want to come up here and kind of bridge the gap between my people and medicine, because I know how the hospitals are here and the different treatment and microaggressions that can happen,” Sierra said. “I want to come back here and offer an Indigenous perspective and help bridge the gap and help my people and kind of close the health disparities gap.”

Ashley listened as Sierra rattled off her long list of goals. "One step at a time," she said with a laugh.