Giving voice to children’s causes

Take seven founders of Voices for Virginia's Children, a former Virginia governor, three former Virginia first ladies, a congressman, a state senator, and what have you got?

At Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden on Oct. 23, the gathering produced not only a gala celebration for the first-ever recipients of the Carol S. Fox Making Kids Count Award, but an opportunity for long-time child advocates to renew their dedication to the cause.

One such advocate, Rob Dugger, co-founded a national organization in 2006 that partners with business leaders to promote investment in early childhood development. The group, ReadyNation, has focused its efforts on collecting evidence of the economic and societal benefits of interventions in early childhood – from housing, nutrition and health care to parenting education and preschool programs.

As managing partner of Hanover Investment Group, Dugger is immersed in the world of high finance and in the task of helping asset management companies navigate shifting economic conditions.

But his real passion, Dugger noted, is uniting business leaders behind the vision of giving young children a good start in life today – with the understanding that it will pay off in a better society and stronger workforce tomorrow.

"What gets businessmen to tune into [this message] is a whole lot of people saying This is important," Dugger emphasized. "And what fires me up is what I see going on in the rest of the world.

"The rest of the world," he pointed out, "is focusing on investing in children."

Pebbles and ripples
Johanna Schuchert (pictured, far right), the individual recipient of the first Carol S. Fox award, became a champion for children's causes when she was a young mother in the 1970s.

"I learned about the issue of child abuse . . . through the Virginia Federation of Women's Clubs," Schuchert told the crowd at the gala. "I wanted to do something more."

Thirty years later, after helping to found Prevent Child Abuse Virginia (PCAV), she serves as the organization's executive director. Among PCAV's community-based prevention programs is the model program Healthy Families Virginia, which provides home visiting and parent education services to vulnerable first-time parents.

"We've all been doing this together," Schuchert told the audience in receiving her award. "Often you were the pebbles and I was the ripple, but none of us was doing this alone."

Greg Peters, president and chief executive officer of United Methodist Family Services, echoed Schuchert's theme of working together as he accepted the organizational award for UMFS.

Founded 112 years ago as an orphanage, UMFS has transformed itself into a statewide non-profit providing a variety of foster care and adoption services, treatment and education programs for troubled youth and special needs children, and family support and preservation services. In 2011, Peters told the crowd, the organization served 1100 youth and helped 344 families stay together – in addition to partnering with Fairfax County to establish Leland House.

Forging partnerships in the community, Peters emphasized, has been key to the success of UMFS. "The community is beginning to see us as something more than a service provider. . . Together we can make a difference [and do things] we can't do alone."

Like Schuchert, Peters also had praise for the efforts of the organization's supporters and staff.

"The heroes in this room," he said, "are the staff and the board of UMFS. They will do whatever it takes, and they do it because they believe in the children and the families they serve."

Not ready to learn
The Carol S. Fox award, which will be presented annually by Voices for Virginia's Children, was named for a founder and long-time board member at Voices and honors an individual and an organization that have demonstrated exemplary effort to improve the lives of Virginia's children.

At the reception, Fox took a few moments to trace her involvement with children's causes back to her days living in West Point in the 1970s, when she was inspired to establish a child development center.

"We know the most important development of the brain is in the first three years," Fox reminded the crowd. "But there was no public kindergarten [then], and some kids started school not ready to learn ... and were disruptive."

In 1987, after 25 years in West Point, Fox moved to Richmond and got involved with a similar program at the William Byrd Community Center. That led her to help found the Action Alliance for Virginia’s Children and Youth (later changed to Voices for Virginia's Children), a non-partisan research and advocacy organization that serves as the Kids Count data center for Virginia.

"It's the first place Virginia legislators turn to for information ... about Virginia's most vulnerable population," said Fox.

In his welcoming remarks, Voices Executive Director John Morgan highlighted the Kids Count program as well, pointing out that Voices is known "for our bipartisan credibility and our bipartisan voice." In meetings with policy-makers, Morgan added, "sometimes we are the only group in the room that is independent. We have no stake except helping children.

"We are very proud to be the home of Virginia Kids Count. "

Recommitment and resolve
Among the Voices founders and supporters recognized in addition to Fox were former Virginia first ladies Jinx Holton, Anne Holton, and Jeannie Baliles, as well as former governor Linwood Holton. Board member Eleanor Saslaw was accompanied at the gala by her husband, Senator Dick Saslaw; and Congressman Bobby Scott received special mention for an award he earned from First Focus Campaign for Children.

It was the second consecutive year that Scott has received the national "Champion for Children” award, said Morgan – and he was the only member of the Virginia delegation to do so.

While the economic and political climate continue to pose challenges, noted one speaker in summing up, the passion in the room at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden made it clear that those challenges could be overcome.

"Rather than get discouraged," said Greg Peters, "we've got to increase our resolve."

Quoting Mahatma Gandhi – "Be the change you wish to see in the world" – Schuchert agreed.

"No one can do everything, but everyone can do something," said Schuchert.

"I hope this gathering can be a celebration – and a recommitment to what we’re doing."
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