How a Caring Community, Including Head Start, Propelled My Life

I was an adventurous and curious child growing up in Decatur, Alabama. Still, even good traits can be channeled in the wrong direction when the environment pulsates with the effects of poverty and brokenness. 

Churmell Mitchell, the author, as a boy who looked to mentors for guidance and wisdom.

By Churmell Mitchell

I was an adventurous and curious child growing up in Decatur, Alabama. Still, even good traits can be channeled in the wrong direction when the environment pulsates with the effects of poverty and brokenness. My mom, a single mom, was a hard worker who had multiple jobs, one of which was cooking at the Head Start program I attended. Mom had abusive partners and our household featured all the horrors that come with domestic violence. My dad was in and out of my life and seemed to wrestle with whether he wanted or understood fatherhood. That, combined with being caught between him and my mother when they weren’t getting along, meant I didn’t establish a positive relationship with him until much later. I had to grow up early, and there are things I experienced and saw that no child should.

I remember Head Start as one of the few safe havens in my community. The teachers formed a protective cocoon, shielding us kids from real-life hazards that were immediately outside those doors. Head Start was a place of love and hope, and I relished that environment. I craved love as a child, and that’s where I found it. Getting it was a high for me. I spent all of my childhood, teenage years, and some of my early adulthood years, chasing that high.

A Village Is Formed

I strongly believe in God, and though life was turbulent while growing up, God put people in my life to bridge gaps where I was missing nurturing and guidance. They were part of a village, an informal support system for me. Aunt B was the cornerstone of this village. She was a white woman in our neighborhood who invited my brother and me to her house to do minor household projects. She paid us in popsicles and good company. I mention her race because, even in the 1990s, the vestiges of segregation and discrimination permeated my community and socialization.

I had learned implicitly and explicitly not to trust white people. But Aunt B tore those walls down. My brother and I grew to trust and love her; the same is true of her family toward us. I remember early on while getting to know her, I asked her very pointedly, “Can I love you?” as I ached to feel parental love. Not only did Aunt B let me love her, but she also loved me right back. Through Aunt B, I learned that true love goes way beneath the skin’s surface. This lesson informs so much of my work as a church ministry leader.

Another person in my growing village was a strong black woman named Edith Garner. Ms. Garner took me under her wing in my preteen and early teen years. She counseled me. She took me to church. When I would cry about my parents not loving me, Ms. Garner deftly explained that they did love me but didn’t know how because of emotional wounds. I use this wisdom as foundation in my work today as a parenting coach. Amid a disrupted home life, a stream of individuals like Aunt B and Ms. Garner at different points provided listening ears, stern admonishment when I needed it, a place to sleep, food, and most of all, love, especially during some of the darkest moments in my life, and darker clouds were coming.


He had hit her again. I had reached my limit. I got my gun. I would set my mother and our household free from the abuser once and for all. Though I spent years trying to protect my mother, I couldn’t stay at home any longer while the abuser remained. It hurt me, but one of us had to go. As I prepared the weapon, resolute in ending the nightmare, my mother stopped me physically. She put herself between me and a decision that would invariably lead to a lengthy prison sentence. So, at 16 years old, I left home. I would couch surf, stay with different friends, and people I knew. My girlfriend’s family let me stay with them for a while if I agreed to attend church. I didn’t mind because the church affirmed me, and there, I started to see a glimpse of my future as a motivational speaker and leadership developer.

A year went by, and I was living in a friend’s basement, and on the surface, I tried to make things appear normal. I remained active in school and extracurricular activities, including football. But things were far from normal. Every day, I would arrive at school early and shower in the locker room so no one would know my status. It had been two years of sleeping at friends’ houses, in my car, scrounging for food in the streets. I was weary. The stress of instability was overwhelming. I felt abandoned. I was having suicidal thoughts; I asked God, “Do you love me?” I found an affirmative answer through the Christian scriptures: nothing can stop God from loving us. I chose to trust and believe that, and it gave me hope.

Cloudy With a Chance of Sunshine

In my senior year of high school, I moved back home to help care for my mother, who was recovering from surgery. The abuser was gone, and it was a step in the right direction to healing our relationship. With help from a few additional folks who joined my village, I was encouraged to apply to college. I knew I wanted to attend college but didn’t understand the process. With guidance from teachers and others, I applied to and was admitted to Auburn University to study Exercise Science and secured a starting position on the football team. During my college years, life was going in a positive direction: I was a sought-after youth speaker for churches and other organizations, was married, and had an event planning service. The dark clouds seemed to be clearing, and it felt like daybreak was coming.

Daybreak Arrives

Sometimes, life is darkest before a breakthrough. While at college, I suffered a knee injury, which ended my football career opportunities, including my chance to play at Auburn University. My marriage dissolved, and I became homeless again, with two small children. A few faculty members learned about my situation and rallied the university to find a way to assist me. I’m in awe of how this village worked together to ensure I got the support needed to finish school and care for my children.

Today, I work across several fronts as an author, speaker, ministry leader, and Head Start director to deliver hope where there’s little of it. Hope is the engine that keeps you moving forward when everything around you tells you to give up. I want my story to resonate with everyone with childhood trauma, living in poverty, or any other adversity. I hope to encourage them to take a leap of faith and dare to hope; there’s something good on the other side.