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 cfnrv.org/partnerships-initiatives/. To get involved with First Steps, join the Facebook group facebook.com/groups/firststepsnrv or email firstname.lastname@example.org. 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
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