First Steps Announces 2021 Early Childhood Champion Awards

First Steps: The New River Valley’s Early Childhood Education and Development Network announced its first ever Early Childhood Champion Awards at a virtual celebration on July 15th, honoring five individuals who work tirelessly to meet the needs of the New River Valley’s young children and their families. 

Created in 2016, First Steps is an initiative of the Community Foundation of the New River Valley (CFNRV), composed of more than 100 social service agencies, healthcare providers, childcare centers, local government officials, and business leaders. The network’s working groups focus on increasing knowledge about and access to available services for children and families, developing shared values and messaging about the critical importance of early childhood, and supporting and strengthening the early childhood education and development workforce. 

The Early Childhood Champion Awards recognize the extraordinary educators, administrators, human service providers, healthcare workers, and advocates who put their passion and expertise to work every day for families and children in the region. The definition of the awards was broad to encompass anyone who make an impact on young children regardless of their title or affiliation.

First Steps solicited nominations from throughout the community, receiving a total of 52 nominations for 19 individuals. At the July 15th event, First Steps leaders recognized each of the nominees and announced five awardees including three honorees, a runner-up, and a champion of the year. The awardees received a cash prize provided by the CFNRV.

The 2021 Early Childhood Champion of the Year was Leslie Blevins Graham, the Lead Preschool Teacher at Imagination Station in Pearisburg. Graham has been an educator for fifteen years, working with all age groups at the Imagination Station, most recently focused on helping prepare preschool kids to enter kindergarten healthy, happy, and ready to learn. Twenty-two individuals sent in nominations for Graham, praising her commitment to her students and her constant desire to learn about and implement the very best practices in early childhood education.

One coworker wrote in her nomination, ““Leslie is by a far a champion in all of our eyes. She goes above and beyond for her children and coworkers. She is a great teacher and friend and deserves all the recognition.” Graham was surprised and deeply appreciative of the recognition, “I am honored and humbled by this award.  It is truly an honor to work in the early childhood field.” 

All awardees and honorees are listed below, with additional information on the First Steps website at To get involved with First Steps, join the Facebook group or email First Steps will begin accepting nominations for the 2022 awards next spring.


Early Childhood Champion of the Year: Leslie Blevins Graham, Lead Preschool Teacher, Imagination Station

Early Childhood Champion Runner-Up: Elizabeth Foster, Founder & Past President, Valley Interfaith Child Care Center

Early Childhood Champion Honoree: Karen Gallaghar, Director, Virginia Tech Child Development Center for Learning and Research (VTCDCLR)

Early Childhood Champion Honoree: Sarah Nucci, Executive Director, Wonder Universe: A Children’s Museum

Early Childhood Champion Honoree: Kim Wasil, Director, North Blacksburg KinderCare

Additional Nominees

Josie Bloom: Preschool Teacher, YMCA of Pulaski County

Kayla Dalton: Assistant Director, North Blacksburg KinderCare

Megan DeFranco: Family Services Provider, Head Start

Alexa Gardner: Curriculum Coordinator, Administration and Advanced Instructor, Virginia Tech Child Development Center for Learning and Research (VTCDCLR)

Giles County Head Start Team: Sharon Allen, Christi Caldwell, Susan Estes, Jessica Hale, Troyleena Pate, Brittany Radford, Cierra Riggs

Charlie Herbert: Founder, Giles Community Garden

Erin Johnson: Preschool Teacher, Montgomery County Public Schools/Head Start

Amber Jones: Pre-K Teacher, North Blacksburg KinderCare

Becky Navvaro: Family Educator, CHIP of the NRV

Carol Peters: Family Educator Supervisor, CHIP of the NRV

Price’s Fork Elementary Preschool Team: Pat Jones, Ashley Price, Amy Ruppert

April Smith: Childcare Director, YMCA of Pulaski County

Kristi Snyder: Administrator, Rainbow Riders Childcare Center

Kim Thomason: Program Manager, Early Childhood Education, Virginia Tech

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