Assisting others is the highlight of Heather Gaston’s career. Before accepting her current position as the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Child Development Center’s intake specialist, Gaston served as a master infant teacher at the CPN CDC for 12 years. Now, she provides low-income Native American families with social service referrals and assists parents with finding adequate childcare within Oklahoma, Pottawatomie and Cleveland counties.
“I miss my babies and the children a lot, but the fact that I’m helping other families — it’s really what I want to do,” Gaston said. “Whether that’s showing them where to go, how to get help and telling them what resources are out there.
“I’ve used (the services) as well, so I just want to help people,” she said.
Gaston pursues opportunities to learn about existing tribal and community resources to help remove client barriers.
“We partner with as many organizations and people as possible,” she said. “And it’s not just for the babies but their mother’s as well. We help with as much as we can, especially getting the word out about what’s available.”
Gaston draws upon her personal experience as inspiration. She grew up in Pink, Oklahoma, and two of her children, Savannah and Mia, are Burnett descendants. Working for the Nation provides her daughters an opportunity to learn their Potawatomi heritage.
“My kids take part in Festival on both sides,” Gaston said. “If I am working a booth, my oldest daughter will come help me work the booth because she also likes to help people.”
Her daughter also assisted CPN’s Workforce Development & Social Services’ programming this summer.
“That’s something I wouldn’t have known anything about if I wasn’t working for the Tribe,” Gaston said. “It’s helped me connect her more to her culture.”
“Having children that I have helped find child care for or helping them get situated into a good child development center — that’s what I’m grateful for,” Gaston said. “They recognize me, they see me in the hallway, and I’m still there to help. That’s rewarding, and that’s what I’m in it for.
“I take the job of taking care of them very seriously, and I try to be knowledgeable,” she said.
Gaston attempts to create a calm, safe environment to help determine each client’s hindrances.
“People don’t want to go up to a perfect stranger and say, ‘Let me tell you where I’m struggling,’” Gastson said. “I don’t want to do that either. It’s just building that confidence with somebody else and building that relationship with somebody else for them to open up to you, so you can help them.”
Specific success stories are hard for Gaston to recall, because “I have them every day,” she said. “Every day, it’s not the same story. It’s not the same person.”
She is currently working toward a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. Gaston encourages other parents in school not to be afraid to ask for assistance.
“I think sometimes as adults we forget that there are people and family members out there willing to help us in some way or another, whether it’s asking grandma to babysit while you are in class or asking your teacher for help on an assignment,” Gaston said. “In the same hand, you should know your limits and be realistic about your workload and what you can handle.”
Gaston offices at the recently opened Dale Child Development Center near CPN’s West Clinic, but two days out of the week, she travels to the CPN’s Women, Infant and Children Program office and the WIC offices in Oklahoma City to assist clients.
“We’re there waiting for anybody that needs our services, to make sure word is getting out there and answer any questions,” Gaston said.
She said if someone is unable to meet at the office, staff can go to them. Additionally, if a client is not comfortable with talking to someone directly, Gaston encourages them to check out the CDC’s website first, cpn.news/CPNCDC.
“My biggest goal is just to try and reach out to anybody that needs help, to try and be welcoming, approachable and understanding,” Gaston said. “I want to be that person people come to when they need help.”