Imagine putting together a complex puzzle. You would typically start around the edges and build inward. These pieces are dark, confusing to put together, and represent all the struggles of 2020. While building towards the middle of the puzzle, the image starts to show a beautiful glowing aura, and the center shows IHSD’s Lakewood Head Start and Early Head Start team.

“We’re like a puzzle and our pieces just fit together,” site supervisor Kifah Gheith shared.

Despite the shutdown of many child care programs and teachers being stretched to new limits, the Lakewood team dug deep within themselves to channel positivity while operating during a pandemic. ”If we feel that someone is not having their best day or having a tough time, we’ll try to lift each other’s spirits,” Gheith explained. In the morning, the team makes an effort to safely greet each other. “Even if it’s a text when we’re really busy. We’ll also wave at each other,” she shared. Lakewood teacher Yamilette Carrero is another example of the team’s support for each other. While in recovery from a medical procedure, Carrero was thrilled to receive flowers from her co-workers. “I would like to share my beautiful flowers,” Carrero said. “They are blooming every day. These are the blessings, and I’m thankful for all the beautiful and positive energies that were given to me before and after my spinal surgery.” As the youngest on the Lakewood team, teacher Tuipulotu (also goes by Lotu) Tongilava really considered the risks of going to work during the pandemic while caring for her father at home but eventually returned to be with her team.

“It’s such a joy to see co-workers helping each other,” she shared. “This is a second family to me.”

Gheith also credits the support of IHSD’s management team to help them navigate these challenging times. “Angel [Barrios] was meeting with us every single day when we first opened during COVID,” she explained. The respect for great leadership was mutual when Executive Director Angel Barrios likewise noticed the positivity under Gheith’s leadership. “Kifah is a really good supervisor, and it’s been a joy to see her grow,” Barrios shared. Gheith started out as a teacher at IHSD six years ago and worked her way through different roles to be site director at Lakewood.

“She has a beautiful way like when she speaks it’s so comforting. I see it in her staff and families, and she’s very humble,” Barrios said.

The Lakewood families, in turn, have very strong relationships with the staff. “The way we approach families is that we put ourselves in their shoes and never judge them,” Gheith explained, “and the parents bring their kids knowing they’ll be well taken care of.” Tongilava shared a recent conversation with one of her students.

“She looked at me and said, ‘I’m so happy, teacher.’ Then I told her, ‘I’m glad you’re happy. What makes you happy?’ And then, she said, ‘I’m just happy to come to school, play with my friends, dance and sing with teachers.’ Hearing this just makes my day.”

In contrast to the painful realities of 2020, the Lakewood staff has poured a lot of heart and warmth into their program site, because they are truly passionate about their work. “You wake up in the morning and question if it’s really safe to go to work, but we’re really dedicated,” Gheith shared. “We know the goal. We don’t just come here to just work and go home.” Despite local wildfires, national tension on race and politics, and a worldwide pandemic, Gheith and her team are committed to serving the community.

“We love what we’re doing,” she said.

That positivity from Lakewood has been there pre-pandemic, and the puzzle pieces to their teamwork might seem ordinary in normal times, But in a dark world full of pain and brokenness right now, their glowing puzzle is just that much brighter and more beautiful to see.


Angel Chang
Marketing and Communications Manager