First Steps Honors Early Childhood Champions

Above: 2022 Early Childhood Champion awardees (left to right): Bonnie Graham, Chelsea Naughton Sharlow, Shannon Marshall Mury, Judy Shelor, and Bonnie Caldwell, who is holding a red bandana in honor of her teammate and co-honoree, Ben Rowan.

Christiansburg, Virginia; October 5, 2021: First Steps, an initiative of the Community Foundation of the New River Valley (CFNRV), is celebrating 19 early childhood educators and advocates who make an impact on the New River Valley’s young children every day.

First Steps is a network of more than sixty New River Valley organizations that support young children and families through education, childcare, healthcare, advocacy, and more. For the second year, the initiative held the Early Childhood Champion Awards, which brought together nearly 100 people at Omni Place in Fairlawn to celebrate and draw attention to the critical importance of early childhood care and education.

“We hope that these awards shed light on the incredible hearts that are building the brains of our next generation,” said Katie Thompson, center director of Radford Early Learning Center and member of the First Steps leadership team. “We recognize that the men and women in this field often burn their candles at both ends to ensure others burn bright. So, we wanted to recognize, celebrate, and uplift this workforce.”

The event featured speakers highlighting the work of First Steps and the ripple effect that quality, affordable childcare has on the entire community. This message was further emphasized in a video message from the presidents of New River Community College (Pat Huber), Radford University (Bret Danilowicz), and Virginia Tech (Tim Sands), who celebrated the early childhood champions and emphasized the importance of high-quality childcare to the region’s economy and quality of life.

The 19 nominees received a total of 34 nominations from colleagues and parents. Six nominees were selected as this year’s awardees and received cash prizes from the CFNRV. Shannon Marshall Mury from Virginia Tech’s Child Development Center for Learning and Research (VTCDCLR) won the top award, 2022 Early Childhood Champion of the Year.

“Winning this award means so much to me. I am proud of the work we do as early childhood educators and hope to inspire future educators to enter this very important field,” said Shannon Marshall Mury, who is a mentor teacher with the VTCDCLR. “The work we do lays the foundation for how a child learns throughout their lives.”

This year’s Early Childhood Champion runner-up is Bonnie Graham of New River Community College, where she is a professor and the program head of Human Services and Early Childhood Education. Additionally, First Steps recognized one team and two individual honorees: Bonnie Caldwell and Ben Rowan of Rainbow Riders Knollwood Site, Chelsea Naughton Sharlow of Heart N’Hand Early Learning Center, and Judy Shelor of Valley Interfaith Child Care Center.

Additional nominees are listed below. Nominations for the 2023 awards will open next spring. More information on First Steps can be found at To support or get involved with the work of First Steps, please reach out to Jessica Wirgau at or 540-381-8999.

2022 Nominees

  • Tonya Cook, Book Coordinator at Reading is Fun in Floyd
  • Michelle Crowder, Preschool Teacher at Kindercare
  • Lori Dobbins, Office Administrator at Radford Head Start
  • Alea Lacoste, Lead Teacher in the Blue Room at Virginia Tech Child Development Center for Learning and Research
  • Carol Martin, Administrator Director at Building Bridges Child Development Center
  • Resa Mattson, Program Coordinator at the June Bug Center
  • Courtney McClaughtery, Childcare Director at the Giles Health and Family Center
  • Sheila Morrison, Director of the Imagination Station
  • Linda Pospichal, First Grade Teacher at the Blacksburg New School
  • Marin Riegger, Director of the Little Hokie Hangout at Virginia Tech
  • Stefi Schafer, Early Childhood Teacher at Blue Mountain School
  • Brittany Dixon Weber, Lead Teacher at Radford Early Learning Center
  • Jessica Wirgau, Chief Executive Officer at the Community Foundation of the New River Valley

Read more about this year’s Early Childhood Champion nominees.

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