Stephenie Giustos work as a family advocate for Calaveras Head Start was recognized last month when she received the statewide Head Start Support Staff of the Year award.

A shy mother of seven with swaying shoulder-length red hair found herself on stage in San Diego at the California Head Start State Conference with Yolanda King, oldest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.

She was very elegant and you could tell she spoke from the heart when she talked about the importance of children. She gave a speech before handing out the awards, Giusto said. Shes my age (46) and quite tall. When she gave me my award she gave me a hug. I said, thank you. It was the greatest thing Ive ever experienced.

Giustos association with Calaveras Head Start began in 1996 when she enrolled her youngest son in the Jenny Lind Head Start program.

It was hard to understand him when he was speaking and a friend recommended Head Start to help with language development and other social skills, she said.

A Head Start speech therapist worked with the boy and Giusto saw progress.

Giusto was studying fine art at Delta College when a friend encouraged her to apply for a job as a family advocate with Head Start three years ago.

Today she serves about 52 families in the San Andreas area, helping them build on their strengths and find help for their weaknesses. With each of her families, she develops a plan to meet family goals, whether that is more education, a better job or simply the ability to put more food on the dinner table.

Giusto said some families are self sufficient, while others need things as basic as food or housing. And she, through Head Start, helps them find the resources they need to improve their lives.

Her supervisor, Sheila Neal, nominated Giusto for the statewide award.

Four other awards were also given by Yolanda King during the Jan. 19 conference in San Diego.