Virginia first lady Pamela Northam’s annual Back to School tour of the state is a little different this year.
“We’re usually bringing books to schools and this time we’re bringing PPE—masks and hand sanitizer,” Northam said.
Northam made two stops in Fredericksburg on Tuesday, one at Kids’ Station, a day care, preschool and after-school facility on the Mary Washington Hospital campus, and the other at Downtown Greens, a community garden on Charles Street. The purpose of the tour is to highlight the importance of early childhood education, Northam said.
This year, Northam said she especially wants to draw positive attention to the “heroic” work of child care providers, many of whom have struggled to keep their businesses open to provide critically needed care to first responders during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s so important to talk about the critical early years of childhood,” Northam said. “This is where we have exponential brain growth, but no investment.”
Since April, Virginia’s departments of education and social services have made more than $80 million in CARES Act funding available to child care providers and to increase access to early childhood education programs.
The state budget introduced by Gov. Ralph Northam at the August special session of the General Assembly includes $3 million in incentives for early education providers, as well as $16 million to provide grants for partnerships with schools to provide care for school-age children.
The first lady said the “road back” to success following the pandemic begins with early childhood and K-12 education and is dependent on the “incredible creativity” of teachers, many of whom are having to adapt to a virtual environment.
“This is really about thanking our teachers,” Northam said.
Her visit to Downtown Greens highlighted the educational and health benefits of gardening and time spent outdoors, especially as school for many students at the moment involves sitting in front of a screen.
“Gardens grow more than plants,” Northam said, as she toured Downtown Greens with Executive Director Sarah Perry and board members, as well as Del. Joshua Cole, D–Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw and Vice Mayor and City Council member Charlie Frye.
Downtown Greens, which is celebrating 25 years, holds a host of programs for children, many of whom live in Hazel Hill—the neighboring low-income housing development—or attend preschool at the nearby Walker–Grant Center.
The Youth Farm Program is for local children, with at least 75 percent coming from Hazel Hill. Children meet weekly for activities that include tending to the program’s garden plot, crafts and environmental literacy.
They also gather for a monthly dinner that they cook with a guest chef using produce they grew in the garden. And they sell extra produce once a month at the downtown farmers market.
“This is a program we have with these families for seven months, so we really get a chance to build relationships,” Perry said.
She noted that participants not only learn how to grow their own produce, but also how to cook it, and added that working at the farmers market gives them confidence and business skills.
“It’s not a handout,” said board President Brad Smith. “We’re really giving them a sense of ownership.”
Earlier in the pandemic, Downtown Greens established a “take what you need” garden for struggling families. Perry said the garden was successful and she even noticed members of the community stopping by to help tend it.
“We all love to get our hands in the dirt,” Northam said.
Perry said the mission of Downtown Greens is to be a backyard gathering spot for the community, especially as many in the neighborhood don’t have backyards of their own.
Anyone who wants to try composting is welcome to bring their food scraps to the organization’s compost bin, Perry said.
Smith said the garden was a site for discussions between police and members of the groups that have been protesting against racism in downtown streets since June.
“We use the space to bring unlike groups together,” he said.
Northam spent time visiting with some of the neighborhood children who were planting broccoli in the upper garden on Tuesday afternoon. She sampled ground cherries and admired the Three Sisters Garden, a Native American-style of gardening in which beans, corn and squash are planted together.
Northam said she has been working on introducing a sustainability plan at the Executive Mansion in Richmond. Some of these measures include planting an organic garden, composting and replacing some of the grass lawn with clover, she said.
Northam said she would love to see the Downtown Greens model “reproduced across the commonwealth.”
“It has grown organically out of the soil by people in the community, and I just love that,” she said. “It’s bringing people together, and goodness knows, we need a little more of that right now.”
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