2021 Early Childhood Champions

First Steps recognizes individuals and teams serving young children and families through the Early Childhood Champion Awards. We select five award recipients overall, including three honorees, one runner-up, and one early childhood champion of the year. Each receives a cash prize made possible by the Community Foundation. Check out the 2021 awardees and nominees below

2021 Early Childhood Champion of the Year

Leslie Blevins Graham

Leslie Blevins Graham, the lead preschool teacher at Imagination Station in Pearisburg, is the 2021 Early Childhood Champion of the Year. She was nominated by both parents and coworkers who describe her as “amazing, compassionate, and hard working.”

One friend and coworker summed up the sentiment in all of the nominations by writing, “Leslie is by a far a champion in all of our eyes here at the Imagination Station. She goes above and beyond for her children and coworkers. She is a great teacher and friend and deserves all the recognition.”

Other Award Recipients

Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth Foster, Runner Up

Elizabeth Foster is the 2021 Runner-Up. She is the founder, past president, and a board member of Valley Interfaith Child Care Center (VICCC)Started in 2003, VICCC is a dedicated to offering high quality early care and education to low and moderate income families. Elizabeth was nominated by several friends and fellow board members, one of whom writes “The program truly owes its existence to Elizabeth. An extremely gifted professional artist, she not only painted murals on the walls of our centers, but also served a term as Board President, scrubbed floors, planted gardens, raised money, and, most importantly, offered love and support to the often-struggling young children VICCC cares for. She is one of the most inspiring persons anyone could meet, while remaining a down-to-earth, caring and generous friend. We proudly call her the Founding Grandmother of VICCC, and she richly deserves recognition as a champion of early childhood.”

Karen Gallagher

Karen Gallagher, Honoree

Karen Gallagher is the Director of the VT Child Development Center for Learning and Research. She was nominated by her colleague, who writes “Her passion to advocate for the type of quality care that all young children and families deserve continues to grow. She advocates for better pay for teachers. She advocates for play-based learning as the most developmentally appropriate mechanism for learning in early childhood. She advocates for the use of terms such as school or childcare center rather than daycare to demonstrate how critical the work of professionals in this field truly is…because we take care of children and families not days….and the quality of this care means everything.”

Sarah Nucci

Sarah Nucci, Honoree

Sarah Nucci is the Executive Director of Wonder Universe: A Children’s Museum. She was nominated by a board member who writes, “Less than six months into her role, COVID-19 struck and closed the museum’s doors for more than four months, greatly disrupting its revenue stream and threatening its viability. Sarah worked quickly to manage this crisis. She and her small staff team developed fun and creative ways to meet this moment while supporting the children and families of the NRV. Because of her thoughtful guidance, our local children’s museum stands stronger today. Sarah has done an amazing job supporting parents and kids during a very difficult time for our community.”

Kim Wasil

Kim Wasil, Honoree

Kim Wasil is the Director of North Blacksburg KinderCare. She was nominated by a teacher who writes, “Kim goes above and beyond everyday to provide a welcoming and excited environment for the children. She is transparent and prompt in her communication with parents and teachers. She loves every child and their families. She is supportive of her teachers and always a positive energy at the center.”

Additional Nominees

Josie Bloom

Josie Bloom

Josie is a preschool teacher at the YMCA of Pulaski County. She was nominated by her supervisor, who writes “what makes Josie special is her continuous desire to meet the individual needs of her students. She knows them all well and understands how following their interests can support their development.”

Kayla Dalton

Kayla Dalton

Kayla is the Assistant Director of North Blacksburg KinderCare. She was nominated by her coworker, who writes “She shows up for our families and staff and makes sure everyone feels loved and accepted while creating an inclusive and quality environment. Kayla leads with mindfulness and kindness and we are so lucky to have her at our center!”

Megan DeFranco

Megan is a family services provider for Head Start, part of New River Community Action. She was nominated by her coworker, who writes “Megan goes above and beyond to provide her families with the resources and support they need to be successful. She is always willing to help out teachers in the classroom and supports the teachers and students in any way needed.”

Alexa Gardner

Alexa is a Curriculum Coordinator,  Administrator , and Advanced Instructor at the VT Child Development Center for Learning and Research. She was nominated by her co-worker, who writes “Our school has remained open throughout the pandemic and every step of the way Alexa has been reflecting and strategizing on to how to keep everyone safe, how to be a high quality program while socially distancing, and how to continue successful home/school communication. When a parent or teacher present a challenge, Alexa is not only brainstorming a solution but putting it into practice.”


Giles County Head Start Team

Sharon Allen, Christi Caldwell, Susan Estes, Jessica Hale, Troyleena Pate, Brittany Radford and Cierra Riggs make a powerful team for Giles County Head Start children and families. Nominated by Head Start parents, the team is described as “caring, amazing, and always going out of the way to help.”

Charlie Herbert

Charlie Herbert

Charlie is the mastermind behind the Giles Community Garden. He was nominated by a colleague who writes, “Charlie has been a champion for children for many years. He is passionate about teaching young children about nutritious food and where their food comes from, and he instills in these kids a joy for growing and eating fruits and vegetables that will benefit both them and their families.”

Erin Johnson

Erin is a preschool teacher for Montgomery County Public Schools and Head Start. She was nominated by a colleague who spoke glowingly of Erin’s work during COVID in writing, “This preschool teacher goes over and beyond what she needs to ensure effective learning to take place with her preschoolers. It was a lot of stress to have two groups of half day preschoolers, and providing remote asynchronous lessons to her

Amber Jones

Amber Jones

Amber is a Pre-K teacher at the North Blacksburg KinderCare. She was nominated by a colleague, who writes “In my experience, I have seen few people have such a genuine talent for making every child feel loved and cared for the way she does. She is so kind and incredibly creative and makes her classroom a true home away from home for her children.”

Rebecca Navarro

Rebecca (Becky) is a family educator with CHIP of the New River Valley, a home-visiting program that links families with young children to medical, dental, and human service professionals. Becky was nominated by a colleague who writes “Becky is an outstanding Family Educator. She serves her families with love and care. Becky always has a smile on her face and has a positive attitude no matter what comes her way. When I think of an Early Childhood Champion, I immediately think of Becky.”

Carol Peters

Carol Peters

Carol is the Family Educator Supervisor for CHIP of the New River Valley, a home visiting program that connects families with young children to medical, dental, and human service professionals. She was nominated by her supervisor, who writes “Carol goes above and beyond for her team of family educators and recently completed her infant mental health endorsement while continuing to serve as a supervisor and give staff direction during a global pandemic.”

Prices Fork Elementary School Preschool Team

Amy Ruppert, Ashley Price, and Pat Jones form the preschool team at Price’s Fork Elementary School serving more than fifty 3-4-year olds. They were nominated by their supervisor, who writes, “They are amazing! They work tirelessly to support our early childhood program at PFES. They care deeply for our students. They work to build social, emotional and academic readiness for PK and Kindergarten. You won’t find a more talented team!”

April Smith

April Smith

April is the Interim Child Care Director for the YMCA of Pulaski County. She was nominated by her supervisor, who writes “She is not only unflappable, calm and measured, but also compassionate, supportive and encouraging to both teachers and families. April has a way of always keeping the whole child’s needs front and center and helping others think in that way, too. She always has a listening ear, practical suggestions and a contagious confidence. I love how April seeks advice from colleagues and has opened our doors wide to area experts for feedback, additional learning opportunities and suggestions for improvement. April is like a breath of fresh air breathing new excitement and possibilities into our center.”

Kristi Snyder and Uriah

Kristi Snyder

Kristi is the Administrator for Rainbow Riders Child Care Center and a staunch advocate for children and families in her work with education and business agencies in the New River Valley and across the state. She was nominated by her colleagues, one of whom writes “Kristi is the most knowledgeable, passionate, and hard-working Early Childhood professional whom I have known in my 40+ year career! She began her work with children when she was 16 yrs old. Now, some 35 years later, she is still tireless and her knowledge and experience are unparalleled! Even while running 3 childcare centers, she still manages to advocate on national and state levels for higher quality programming, teacher development / worthy wage, children’s rights and so much more.”

Kim Thomason

Kim Thomason

Kim has been an instrumental part of improving access to high-quality early education across the NRV in her work with Virginia Quality and VA Child Care Aware, in her role as a consultant and mentor, and now as Program Manager for Early Childhood Education (ECE) Initiatives at Virginia Tech. She was nominated by a colleague who writes, “…her knowledge of ECE is extensive, her respect for the people who teach the very young is a wonder to behold. She has given generously of her great talents to ECE centers throughout the NRV. We would be many steps behind had we not had Kim leading us forward.”

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