First Steps Helps Caregivers and Families Navigate COVID-19

In July 2020, Senator Tim Kaine visited the New River Valley to hear from early educators, healthcare workers, and parents about the desperate need for childcare during the COVID-19 pandemic. The CFNRV provides leadership for First Steps, a network of individuals and organizations supporting young children and families. With this in mind, Senator Kaine’s office approached the CFNRV about convening the July discussion, and the staff invited about twenty participants to speak to the senator about “how childcare is supporting frontline workers during the pandemic.” While grateful for the opportunity to share their insight and expertise, Katie Thompson, Director of the Radford Early Learning Center, summed up the sentiment of many childcare providers in attendance when sharing, “We are not just here to support frontline workers. We are the frontline.”

Thompson is among the hundreds of NRV early educators and human service providers who have worked tirelessly to support children, families, and employers during the pandemic. They have also given their time and talent to First Steps, seeing the network as a critical way to share information and to advocate for childcare and support services as essential to the region’s economic well-being. Throughout the pandemic, the relationships that First Steps has fostered proved vital.

Navigating Unchartered Territory Together

Since 2018, First Steps has held “Meet Yourself” sessions across the NRV. Organizations working in early childhood education and development share information about their programs and network with others to improve referrals and spur collaboration. During COVID, First Steps launched a virtual series featuring experts in areas like mental health, accessing federal childcare funding, and navigating virtual learning. Speakers shared resources and discussed how they as both parents and professionals were working through the challenges of the pandemic. Network members also meet monthly as part of the Common Voice workgroup to share funding and policy updates at the state and federal levels. Kim Thomason, Program Manager for Early Childhood Education at Virginia Tech, has been a longtime member of First Steps and has been involved in advocating for childcare at the regional and state levels. She shares, “The connections and partnerships formed through First Steps give additional opportunities for the needs of families and children to be met. It is a place where partners can express their passion and concerns while moving forward with a collective goal of “the next best step”.  I always walk away with more than I came with and for this, I am grateful to the First Steps community.” 

Serving as a Regional Hub

In addition to its own programs, First Steps has been a valuable resource to other community leaders looking to access childcare and social service providers. First Steps members helped to design the grant program administered by Montgomery County and the Towns of Christiansburg and Blacksburg to distribute CARES money to childcare providers. First Steps also helped the NRV Public Health Task Force to reach out to childcare providers when the COVID-19 vaccine first became available. Officials appreciated the ability to access expertise quickly and to disseminate information through a pre-existing network.

Celebrating Early Childhood Champions

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, the First Steps network wrestled with how to raise the profile of the early care and education workforce. They provide essential services to families and bring a wealth of professional training and experience to a field that is too often unappreciated and underpaid. The pandemic only sharpened the focus on their heroic efforts. To recognize them, First Steps created the Early Childhood Champion Awards. The program is an extension of the awards previously administered by the Alliance for Better Childcare Strategies. The new program recognizes extraordinary teachers, human service providers, healthcare providers, and advocates who work to meet the needs of young children and their families. In 2021, 19 individuals or teams were nominated, and small cash prizes were awarded to five, including three honorees – Karen Gallagher of the Virginia Tech Child Development Center for Learning and Research, Sarah Nucci of Wonder Universe, and Kim Wasil of North Blacksburg Kindercare. Elizabeth Foster, one of the founders of Valley Interfaith Child Care Center, was honored as the runner-up, and Leslie Blevins Graham, a lead preschool teacher at Imagination Station in Pearisburg, was selected as the 2021 NRV Early Child Champion. The awards will be offered annually with nominations solicited each spring. More information about the 2021 nominees and award winners can be found at cfnrv.org/news-events.