For nearly 45 years, Beth Kotchish taught and looked after children at First Baptist Early Learning Center in Martinsville.
“I started as an aide at First Baptist when I was a senior in high school and worked my way up to being the director,” she said. “Children have always been my passion. Even at six years old, my favorite thing to do at church was to go to the nursery. Watching these children from 6 weeks old, seeing them grow up, get married, and bring their children back to you is a blessing. It may sound corny, but this is my calling. It’s always been about the children.”
Kotchish is the director of the only religious-based Level 5 early childhood center in Martinsville-Henry County as rated by Virginia Quality’s Voluntary Rating and Improvement System. Kotchish said she received significant support and technical assistance from Smart Beginnings Martinsville Henry that propelled her staff to a higher standard.
First Baptist Early Learning Center also received funding through the quality improvement program that allowed Kotchish to outfit the center’s classrooms with a new curriculum, Kaplan Learn Every Day, improving the center’s services for children.
“Ruth Anne (Collins) and Talitha (Kirby) have been a godsend,” Kotchish said. “We couldn’t have improved our center to this extent without their support and guidance.”
The Harvest Foundation and Smart Beginnings partnership to build Martinsville-Henry County’s early childhood education system continues with a three-year grant of $1,176,443. This funding focuses on several objectives including increasing local childcare capacity, building a high-quality workforce in early childhood education, and implementing a literacy initiative to increase reading proficiency for students.
“Harvest is a long-time supporter of early childhood education as we believe the evidence that lifelong learning begins at birth and the earliest years of a child directly impacts how they will thrive the rest of their lives,” said Sheryl Agee, senior operating officer at The Harvest Foundation. “Building effective systems takes time but that commitment is rewarding when you can look back and see change occurring.”
A decade ago, no early learning programs in Martinsville-Henry County were part of the state rating system that supports early childhood providers, Agee said.
“Today, 89 percent of our dedicated local programs are actively participating, allowing them to get the support needed to deliver quality services, which further empowers parents with information to choose the program that best fits their child’s needs,” Agee added. “The childcare system still has many challenges around access, affordability, and even providing a living wage to those who care for our children. Harvest remains committed to being a partner at the table as we continue the work to build a strong early learning system that develops thriving youth, supports our workforce and ultimately our entire community.”
Smart Beginnings Martinsville Henry has a proven record of success in addressing needs within the early childhood system. This grant is an opportunity to improve the early learning landscape and put a renewed focus on holistically improving the entire childcare system, according to Philip Wenkstern, executive director of United Way of Henry County & Martinsville.
“Improved access to childcare will ensure more children are enrolled in excellent early learning programs,” Wenkstern said. “Strengthening the quality of existing childcare centers will better prepare our children for school and their future careers, and increasing the enrollment capacity of new and existing centers will ensure that our childcare system can meet the needs of our growing workforce. The United Way is incredibly grateful for the Harvest Foundation’s investment in this critical piece of infrastructure that will impact our community for decades to come.”
Melanie McLarty, director of Smart Beginnings, said one of the most exciting aspects of this grant is the ability to hire a full-time Early Literacy Coordinator.
“We appreciate receiving this grant from the Harvest Foundation to continue our ongoing commitment to increase access to high-quality care and early education for all children in Martinsville and Henry County,” McLarty said. “The main focus of the Early Literacy Coordinator will be on implementing strategies in our early learning community that provides literacy resources and opportunities children need to achieve grade-level reading and school success!”
Smart Beginnings Martinsville Henry is one of 18 regional initiatives in Virginia working to ensure that all children entering kindergarten are healthy, well-cared for, and ready to learn. Find out more by visiting unitedwayofhcm.org/smart-beginnings.