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2018 Breakfast for Children’s Champions


Total raised – over $83,000!


We thank PNC Bank for their Chair Sponsorship, giving our children and this Breakfast a HUGE boost!


Meet the 2018 Children’s Champions

Congratulations! Dr. Rick Lawson was named as the 2018 Children’s Champion and John Gizdic earned the Starfish Public Advocacy Award. This year’s Breakfast was held at Hotel Ballast Wilmington (formerly Hilton Riverside) on Tuesday, April 3rd.  This year’s record amount raised in sponsorships, gifts and pledges supports Smart Start of New Hanover County’s work to increase the capacity of the adults who work with young children in their first 2000 days of life – from parents to pediatricians and social workers to early educators.


Nominees (from left to right) John Gizdic, Melinda Crouch, Maggie Mensch, Sarah Barnett, Lowell Higgins, Qualamoneka Brown, Dionne Sturdivant, and Rick Lawson.



2018 Children’s Champion

Dr. Rick Lawson was not done contributing to young people after a 25 year career in the schools.  As Executive Director of the Children’s Museum of Wilmington, Lawson lived the museum’s mission to educate and inspire imaginative, independent thinking through hands-on science, math, and art experiences and programs.  Lawson considers his greatest achievement to be fostering a learning environment of life-long curiosity and exploration for children as well as their parents.

2018 Starfish Public Advocacy Award Recipient

When John Gizdic came to New Hanover Regional Medical Center as President and CEO, his mission focused on not just treating patients who entered the hospital, but also reaching them in the community.  In an effort to begin to address “social determinants of health”, the hospital reviewed its own salary structure and decided to raise its minimum wage to a “Healthy Community Wage” of $11.50.  When parents have access to a “healthy community wage” they may experience fewer stressors and hardships and thus are better able to provide the safe, stable and nurturing supports their children need.

Meet the 2018 Children’s Champions Honorees

Sarah Barnett began her career as a school bus driver for New Hanover County Schools in 1992.  Since that time, she has been a bright spot in lives of countless children that have climbed onto her bus.  “No child will be without if Sarah knows they have a need”, says her nominator.  Barnett states that the single most rewarding part of her job is witnessing the resiliency in the children who had hard times as they have grown into successful young adults.

Neka Brown has served children and families as a teacher’s assistant in early childhood classrooms for 11 years. She currently works with children in an NC Pre-K classroom at Childcare Network where her nominator says has never seen a teacher be able to connect with every child in a classroom the way Brown does.



District Court Judge Melinda Crouch, has been a pillar in our courts and an advocate for children, says her nominator.  The opioid epidemic has taken an unprecedented toll on our community and often ends up in the family courts.  Crouch also hears cases where children are charged for crimes.  Her nominator says that when faced with this difficult part of her job, Crouch addresses the underlying issues that impede a child’s success.


Lowell Higgins has been a pediatric nurse at NHRMC for 18 years. Through his work in the Pediatric ICU, a unit that Higgins helped get off the ground, he realized the need for specialized pediatric infusions.  This clinic treats children who need chemotherapy, blood products, and IV antibiotics, locally rather than having to drive to UNC or Duke. The best part of his job? “Helping the community work towards better health care for children.”

Maggie Mensch works alongside teachers and parents to get needed mental health services for children as an Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant for New Hanover County’s Head Start Program.  When the needs of students with mental health necessities at Head Start continued to grow and Mensch was asked to increase her hours, she revised her private practice schedule to meet the extreme demand.  “The social and emotional development of children is the most important part of creating healthy, well-adjusted adults”, says Mensch.

Dionne Sturdivant, Principal of Mary Washington Howe Pre-k Center, has made a tremendous impact in just 9 months.  “Ms. Sturdivant is a leader of change and a supporter of what is best for children”, says her nominator.  Continual support and professional learning for her staff are integral parts of Sturdivant’s strategy for ensuring the implementation of best practices in the early learning setting.  She opens her school in the early morning and ends her day when the after school program closes so that she gets to connect with as many parents as possible.

Congratulations to the winners and to the nominees honored for their dedication in working to ensure that all children receive the services they need in their earliest years to be successful in school and in life.

We enjoyed hearing from our Keynote Speaker, Chip Mahan

Chip Mahan is the Founder, CEO and Chairman of the board of directors of Live Oak Bank, a company on the minds and lips of the Wilmington community (and beyond) these days as a model to watch.  Live Oak Bank offers SBA loans to businesses in niche industries, some of which other lenders don’t serve.  Between 2012 and 2016 the bank increased revenue by 500%, and it topped $1 Billion in valuation in November of 2017.

Live Oak Bank is known for being a great place to work – its modern and beautiful light-filled campus with a terrific cafeteria, gym and personal trainers, fitness trail around a small lake and even a doggie park welcomes casually dressed employees.  Most recently the bank invited Smart Start of New Hanover County to present several parenting seminars to its employees, many of whom are raising young families.  We are excited to host Mr. Mahan and to hear about the benefits Live Oak provides its employees, especially benefits that are family centered and recognize that employees are also parents.  This pays off in dedicated and happy employees, and ultimately in a stronger bottom line.