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State First Lady visits Suffolk Head Start Center

After greeting Suffolk Head Start Center staff, Delegate Clinton Jenkins and state Sen. Louise Lucas, Virginia First Lady Pam Northam got to the heart of her visit — the four children to whom she would be reading.

“Hi! How are you guys? I’m so happy to be here today,” Northam said to the children, part of  Chyretta Ferrill’s and Monchel Stallins’ class. “Are you hiding a smile behind your mask? I bet you are. I’m hiding a smile too.”

Northam’s visit Oct. 15 was part of her annual school opening tour, which was interrupted after she and Gov. Ralph Northam tested positive for COVID-19.

It was the first of two stops in Western Tidewater for the state’s first lady, as she also visited Hardy Elementary School in Isle of Wight County. Like all visitors to the center, she wore a mask and had her temperature taken.

In Suffolk, she read the book, “Jabari Tries,” outside the entrance to the center, one of eight locations of The Children’s Center, before briefly walking through the school and touring its covered outdoor space.

Rosalind Cutchins, executive director of The Children’s Center, noted that the covered outdoor space allows the school to keep children safe. The playground has also been divided up at the Suffolk Head Start Center so that children do not play in mixed groups. It has been keeping children in pods in order to prevent cross-contamination.

“We recognize that we will have COVID, but we are trying to minimize that as much as possible,” Cutchins told Northam while socially distanced on the covered outdoor playground.

Cutchins expressed her appreciation to Jenkins and Lucas for early childhood education funding in the state budget, noting the challenge of operating during the coronavirus pandemic.

“With all these additional expenses, it’s hard enough as it is,” Northam said.

Northam credited the efforts of the Obici Healthcare Foundation in helping educate children. The foundation awarded the Children’s Center an Early Childhood Education Grant to fund the Early Childhood Education Partnership. The initiative began in fall 2018 and is a partnership between the foundation and the University of Virginia.

Earlier this year, the foundation awarded The Children’s Center a $419,072 for a three-year grant to improve the quality of its Early Head Start program, expand the number of home visiting spots and grow their capacity to better measure the impact across Early Head Start and the home visiting program. It also awarded the center a $50,000 Healthy Behaviors Grant to fund a playground for Early Head Start Extended Duration Expansion.

Northam visited the Children’s Center and Elephant’s Fork Elementary School last year to highlight the start of the initiative.

The foundation also established a COVID-19 Response Fund and announced more than $1.2 million to support non-profits, public school districts and city and county governments. The foundation gave The Children’s Center nearly $50,000 in August for cleaning and sanitation, PPE, data and equipment needed for virtual work environments.

“We appreciate Obici’s part in all of this,” Northam said. “We couldn’t do this without them.”

Northam was at the center for about 45 minutes before departing for Isle of Wight. Lucas was also with the first lady at Hardy Elementary.

The Northams announced Sept. 25 that they had both tested positive for COVID-19. The governor announced at a briefing Oct. 13 that he had just come out of quarantine the previous day. Both said they had experienced mild symptoms.

While at the center, Northam donated a box of personal protective equipment, as well as a signed book for the school and a special edition First Lady challenge coin for each child.

“You’ll be the only one in your family with one,” Northam told the children about the coin. “Won’t that be special?”

“I’m special,” one of the children said to her.

“Everyone of you are special,” Northam told the children.

One of the children presented Northam with a gift, a work of art that, at the top, said, “Thanks a bunch,” and underneath, the children’s handprints designed to look like flowers.

“This year’s going to be super special, right? Yeah, you’re going to grow, and maybe I’ll come back to visit you at the end of the year,” Northam told the children, “and you can tell me all about all the wonderful things that you’ve learned this year, right? I would love that.”