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2020 Breakfast for Children’s Champions

During this week’s Virtual Children’s Champions Celebration, Kate and Adam Nicholas were named as the 2020 Children’s Champions, and Julia Phelps received the Starfish Public Advocacy Award! 

Watch the full event recording, which includes a surprise live visit from comedian DJ Pryor!


Meet our Children’s Champions nominees (link)

Smart Start of NHC previously made the hard decision to cancel this year’s Breakfast for Children’s Champions at the Hotel Ballast in March to limit community exposure to Covid–19.

Each year we use donations made the morning of the Breakfast from attendees to provide services for early educators, families, and children. We ask that you consider making a donation online. This link takes you to our donation page where you can make a one time or recurring donation. A small monthly donation is an easy way to have big reach.


We thank our community for the continued support of our work with families and young children, especially during the pandemic that has highlighted the need for quality early care and education!

Did you know…

  • In NHC, there are an estimated 11,590 children ages birth to five years old, making up 5% of the population, who have not yet entered kindergarten.
  • Approximately 8,922 children under six in the county live in families where their sole parent or both parents are working. The need for quality child care is critical to the economic viability of these families and businesses.
  • Most families in NHC cannot afford the full cost of child care.
  • In NHC, 30% of children ages birth to 5 live in poverty.

Smart Start of New Hanover County envisions every child entering school with the health, family support and early education necessary to succeed.

2020 Children’s Champion Nominees

Jessica Cooper Ahlum

Jessica Cooper Ahlum has been helping parents in New Hanover County to bond with their children since she began her career 20 years ago.  She got her start as an early childhood educator in a program designed for young mothers at New Hanover High School to visit their babies between classes.  Over the years, she has held positions at several organizations designed to support families and babies. One of her proudest accomplishment? Opening her own practice called Happy Families Happy Babies – the first pre and perinatal psychology practice in Wilmington.  Jessica is passionate about her work, believing that nurturing young families can dramatically reshape communities and health systems.

Kate & Adam Nicholas

Kate and Adam Nicholas have been foster parents with the New Hanover County Department of Social Services for 5 years and have cared for more than 17 children between the ages of 3 weeks -7 years old, all of whom have special needs ranging from traumatic brain injuries to failure to thrive. Their nominator says, “The consensus among many of the Social Workers at NHC DSS is that Kate and Adam must be superhuman. To parent (and ultimately adopt) 5 special needs children (5 and under) in and of itself deserves admiration.” Kate and Adam state, “In our years as foster parents, many people have cautioned us not to ‘get too attached.’ We have found that it is best to do the exact opposite. These children need for their caregivers to throw their entire hearts and souls into parenting them.”  Kate and Adam do all of this while both working full time jobs and being active members in our community. Their nominator describes Kate and Adam as fierce advocates who love unconditionally and absolutely stand out as consistently going above and beyond for children.

David Brenner

As a Master Gardener, David Brenner is raising community awareness for green space, increasing access to healthy food in low income areas, and teaching a new generation the value of gardening and healthy eating. Since 2015, his Wilmington Green project has developed a 2 acre urban farm and managed 10 community gardens, including some in early child care settings. David has been a mentor for the Farm to Early Care and Education Collaborative. Here, you will find him at local child care centers, volunteering his time to join teachers and families to install raised garden beds on playgrounds with plants and herbs for the children to enjoy. His nominator says, Through our work with David, we learned not only what a great resource he is for young children, but also to New Hanover County.”

Max Nunez

Max Nunez has been serving young children and their families in our community for 13 years.  In his current role as a children’s librarian with the Public Library, he sparks an interest for reading in children while educating parents on the importance of reading to their children.  His nominator says, “His innovative programming ideas breathe new life into our profession.”  Max has developed programs for families, such as Daddy Daughter Dance, Mother Son Glow Stick Dance Party, Superhero Fun Run, and Acorn Smash, during which children connect with nature, other children, and with their families.  Max is motivated by seeing families return to the library repeatedly and enjoying each other’s company. In the past 7 years, Max has read over 3,000 books to more than 40,000 patrons!

Julia Phelps

Julia has worked for New Hanover County as the Injury Prevention Health Educator for almost 7 years.  She leads a multi-faceted child injury-prevention program called Safe Kids Cape Fear. Julia works closely with community partners on programs such as Bike & Walk to School Days, Bike Safety Rodeos, and Child Passenger Safety.  Alongside dedicated coalition partners, Julia has worked to build a robust Child Passenger Safety program throughout Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender Counties. The coalition now boasts the largest number of Permanent Checking Stations and Nationally Certified Child Passenger Technicians in North Carolina. Julia is a full time advocate for healthy and injury free kids and works to keep kids safe by keeping parents and caregivers aware of trends, new technologies and risks. Julia educates families in other safety areas, including, poison prevention, water safety, and fire safety. She furthers her reach by teaching community professionals methods for positively impacting child safety in New Hanover County.  Her nominator says, “Julia works tirelessly to lessen the occurrence and impact of preventable injuries for the children of our community.”

Questions? email Stephanie Harris or call 910.815.3731 x.1013


2019 Breakfast for Children’s Champions raised over $58,000!!

Congratulations! Tami Hilton was named as the 2019 Children’s Champion and Wanda Marino earned the Starfish Public Advocacy Award. This year’s Breakfast was held at Hotel Ballast Wilmington on Tuesday, April 9th.  The 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.

2019 Children’s Champion

Tami Hilton’s nominator calls her a bridge builder and a barrier remover. In her work with Community Care of the Lower Cape Fear, Tami’s efforts focus on the welfare and preventative health care of children, especially vulnerable populations. She helps to create long term, sustainable care coordination for children who might not otherwise have knowledgeable advocates in their lives. From getting hypoallergenic pillow cases for asthma management to implementing work flows with local doctors that are aligned with the American Academy of Pediatrics, she is always looking to make a child’s life more comfortable removing the barriers that prevent overall optimal health. She believes in and has worked tirelessly to create a network of community providers that are trauma informed and resiliency focused.

2019 Starfish Public Advocacy Award

As her nominator is fond of saying, “All super heroes don’t wear capes.” Wanda Marino, is a special kind of super hero, a protector of children. Prior to her retirement as the Assistant Director at the Department of Social Services (DSS), Wanda’s super powers were a force to be reckoned with. She was the driving force in the development of New Hanover County’s Community Child Protection team. From that, was born a Child Fatality Protocol that established stronger investigative responses from law enforcement and the District Attorney’s office, but also from DSS itself. The protocol got the attention of a member of the NC Senate who is interested in making it mandatory across the state. Wanda was also part of the NHC School Justice Partnership, representing all the children under DSS’s protection and care. She helped build the Intensive Reunification Program to address neonatal abstinence syndrome, again achieving state-wide and national attention. She is a “relentless advocate for children.”

2019 Nominees

Rachel Greer, Gail Heider, Pepper Hill, Tami Hilton, Wanda Marino, Mark Murphy, Tammy Thomas (from left to right)