By SENATOR JAY ROCKEFELLER

WASHINGTON -- I recently received the most touching gift – a framed picture from the West Virginia Head Start Association of little ones dressed up as what they want to be when they grow up. With their photos scattered on the branches of a hand-painted tree, these tiny doctors, teachers, mommies, and firefighters simply beamed with hope and aspiration.

This picture captured the wonderment of that young age -– and the critical window of time we have to encourage them.

These children are our bright future. They have the potential to become the researchers, caregivers and entrepreneurs who will define our nation's path forward. They'll be our problem-solvers, our innovators, and our public servants.

On this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for each of them and their promise. I'm thankful for their moms and dads. And I'm thankful for the people who are putting these children on the early path to their dreams.

Head Start is just one of the flagship programs that lay a strong foundation for our children, and I've been proud to support it over the years. For income-eligible families, this program goes beyond providing an early education. It takes into account every aspect of a child's development –- nutrition, oral health, social and emotional development, and overall wellness.

In addition, Head Start reaches out to parents, caretakers and families -– one of the main reasons this long-running program has been so very successful.

A child's development takes collaboration among those at home and in the community. That's why I worked to secure key funding for a home visiting grant program that provides new parents with support and education on the importance of early childhood development.

Research shows that investments in early education pay off – children with the right care and in the right environment are more likely to stay in school, go to college, and become successful, independent adults. And it's important for their health too. West Virginia Head Start was an early national leader in efforts to combat childhood obesity.

It is for all of these reasons that I will always be an advocate for Head Start and fight to protect it as budget talks continue. Investing in our children should be at the very core of our work. It is, indeed, at the very core of what our Head Start workers do every day.

They prepare our young ones for school, they teach them how to be healthy, they give them confidence -– and they instill early dreams of promising futures.

I can think of no better, more selfless goals to have at a young age than those represented by the children in the picture they gave me -– to be a doctor or nurse who cares for sick people. A teacher who inspires new generations. A loving parent. A brave first responder who keeps communities safe.

Those are the ambitions West Virginia Head Start, child care providers, Pre-K teachers and so many others are encouraging. And I couldn't be more thankful for them.

For more information on West Virginia Head Start, visit www.wvheadstart.org.

Editor's Note: Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is the state's senior U.S. Senator.

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