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Breakfast for Children’s Champions

Do you know someone who is making a difference for young children and their families in New Hanover County?

Smart Start is accepting Children’s Champion nominations!

March 22, 2022 at The Country Club of Landfall

Each year, Smart Start of New Hanover County celebrates and recognizes members of our community who provide exceptional service to young children and/or their families in New Hanover County during children’s first 2,000 days of life, from birth to age 5. Previous nominees have included pediatricians, early childhood educators, social workers, members of volunteer organizations, foster parents, school administrators, etc. Our Annual Breakfast for Children’s Champions will recognize all nominees.

Download Nomination Form (fillable pdf)

Online Nomination Form

Make your donation today

Smart Start uses donations made toward the Breakfast to provide services for early educators, families, and children. We ask that you consider making a donation online.  To support Smart Start’s valuable work with children and families in New Hanover County, complete this donation form or access PayPal here.

Thanks for supporting our work with families who receive our resources, especially when they need it most! 

2021 Breakfast for Children’s Champions

Our 2021 celebration of Children’s Champions was held virtually on Tuesday, March 30, 2021 at 7:30am to celebrate deserving individuals and highlight the work of Smart Start.


Comedian DJ Pryor returned to give a special presentation during the Breakfast for Children’s Champions! Watch his first viral video here.

2021 Children’s Champion

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Joyce Spears is making sure that our community’s children are well cared for far into the future. As an instructor of Early Childhood Education at Cape Fear Community College she encourages and guides her students so that they are well prepared to engage with young children and their families in a positive, caring, and supportive manner in their own childcare classrooms. Her nominator says that not only is she a caring, nurturing, and fun-loving instructor herself, but she goes the extra mile to arrange for students to visit agencies in the community and invites local members of the early childhood education community to speak in her classes. Her aim is to teach her students about available advocacy resources and to make important connections with others in the early childhood education, in addition to the typical classroom training. She doesn’t just teach college students; she helps build impactful careers.

2021 Starfish Award

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Dr. Skip Johnstone is more than just an Obstetrician Gynecologist. He is the founder of The Tides, a nonprofit designed to help expectant mothers with Opioid Use Disorder. Their babies often struggle to survive in their first few days. Skip says, “Once upon a time, I was biased and prejudiced towards people with Opioid Use Disorder.” He began to explore why a pregnant woman would subject her unborn child to the effects of the drugs she chose to use. Skip says he learned that addiction is a neurobehavioral disease like diabetes or hypertension, and with this knowledge, his biases and prejudices faded. These new mothers face overwhelming barriers to treatment, such as poverty, lack of stable housing, violence, and mental health disorders. The Tides is a place where they can reconstruct their family unit and change the trajectory of their lives and the lives of their children.

2021 Children’s Champion Honorees

Katy Bell, a social worker with Child Protective Services nominated by two individuals, credits attitude and commitment to her success in helping children placed in DSS custody. She always gives them her best. She believes that the most impactful way to bring about broad and lasting change is by bettering the lives of children, particularly our most vulnerable children. She recalls one child who’s early childhood neglect, paired with multiple disruptions and transitions, left him with severe behavioral and mental health issues. With Katy’s help, that child has now been adopted into a stable home. Katy’s nominators say she builds trust in the midst of tragedy. She is able to demonstrate confidentiality and transparency. A true professional. She is not only hardworking and resourceful but compassionate, kind and gentle. They marvel at her work to ensure that families communicate effectively and use all community resources that can be provided.

Alethea Jenkins, owner of Jenkins Preschool Academy, says she has the best job ever and finds joy when she sees young children learn. Her nominator says, occasionally the preschool has a child who struggles to find their way socially, emotionally or academically, and Alethea will guide her staff with positive encouragement and recommendations for that child. To support children’s social and emotional development, Alethea adopted COLLIER, a certified paws4people® Facility Dog to teach, play, motivate, and connect with the children. Alethea says understanding that people have various abilities and disabilities promotes tolerance and kindness. For Alethea, children always come first but she also finds time to help parents and families. Parenting is hard work, and Alethea wants families to know that they can reach out to her. She connects them with community resources, so families have information and choices that help them work through the emotions that come with parenting.

Sherl Johnson comes to work with a smile on her face every day. Sherl, an early educator at the YMCA and a founder of their preschool program, sees her job as helping children build confidence in themselves and with others. She creates a classroom that teaches children to care for our earth and all living creatures. Sherl says, “a child must believe that they “can” and they “will,” In working with children, she chooses to encourage them in a way that uses their own talents and interest to spark their creativity. One of her measures of success is to see a child walk confidently into the classroom excited to be at school. Her nominator says that Sherl goes above and beyond by pulling students aside and working with them in a one-on-one setting to ensure that they are developing and growing and are on target.

Scott Robinette, a social worker at Pine Valley Elementary, goes “above and beyond” according to his nominator. Scott works not only to ensure the academic success of children, but to ensure that their families thrive. His nominator, a mother of a five and one year old and a newborn, struggling to meet multiple demands during the pandemic, marveled at Scott’s ability to help her with things at home. Scott has formed relationships with three local churches who have been willing to make donations to help with food, eyeglasses, and holiday gifts for families in need. He notes, “providing these families with a little bit of help to clear immediate hurdles is so important.” In addition to these concrete supports, Scott says kind words directed at every student every day is also of great importance, knowing that how he makes them feel will go a long way in their lives.

LeeAnne Quattrucci is an attorney with Guardian ad Litem where she is the voice for hundreds of children as they navigate the juvenile justice system. She helps find them homes, advocate for services to meet their needs, and file for their adoptions, when needed. In her role, she has the power to influence court decisions about children in foster care, believing that all children deserve love and safe, stable homes. Her nominator says LeeAnne moves quickly to identify the supportive and loving homes so that the children can grow into healthy and happy futures. LeeAnn knows from professional and personal experience that it is easier and healthier to build strong children, rather than to repair broken adults later in life.

Elizabeth Schuett is an early childhood educator and integral part of the St. John’s Episcopal Church preschool program. During the Covid-19 crisis, she has risen to the occasion to put children’s health and well-being first, despite being personally affected by the pandemic. Elizabeth feels privileged to be a part of a child’s early educational experience where she works to not only reach the child who may be struggling, but also to challenge the child who is ready to fly. Much of her focus is on building the social and emotional skills children need to be healthy, happy, and productive, and to maintain connections with families by sharing pictures and videos of their children in school. Reading to young children is the highlight of her day. She believes that helping children learn to love literature is perhaps the most important gift she can give.

Jennifer Walton is a social worker with the NHC DSS who, according to her nominator, has gone above and beyond to help families in need. She is described as down to earth, humble, approachable, and professional. Knowing that each person is the expert in her own life and in her own story helps Jennifer to build trust by listening and getting to know individuals personally. Jennifer believes children are among the most vulnerable, partly because so many adults do not take the time to listen to them. She takes pride in stopping and listening to what the kids have to say. Her approach to working with families is to come with and open mind and seek understanding in every situation. She truly loves seeing the happiness when families are reunified. Jennifer wants them to be proud of who they are and what they have accomplished.

Questions? email Jennifer Gallo or call 910.815.3731 x.1028


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.