Smart Beginnings: Champions for children

Diane Umstead reads with children at Arms of the King Child Care Center in Newport News, one of the child care sites where Smart Beginnings provides training and technical assistance for teachers.

We have a vision that all children on the Virginia Peninsula will be healthy and have the tools they need to succeed in school and, therefore, in life.” These words from Smart Beginnings’ Diane Umstead, executive director, encapsulate everything this organization is about.

Left: Diane Umstead, executive director of Smart Beginnings

Smart Beginnings started with a small group of volunteers from Hidenwood Presbyterian School whose goal was to create positive preschool experiences. Their efforts soon garnered the attention of local school districts and city leaders who encouraged them to target their energies toward school readiness. Emerging from this endeavor was Smart Beginnings, founded in 2005, upon the realization that a child’s early years, ages 0 to 5, significantly impact health, well-being and educational success.

The organization is a coalition of people, “champions who want to provide leadership for this system so parents know how to find quality childcare and so children are in the highest quality sites,” says Umstead. Smart Beginnings’ goal is to work together with teachers, businesses, healthcare facilities, faith-based institutions, schools and other factions to ensure children have the best possible experiences in the early formative years so they’re ready to enter school when the time comes.

To foster this positive start, Smart Beginnings works at both the macro and micro level, ensuring all sectors work together to make things like early literacy available to those who need it.
This assistance may come in the form of training and coaching or through services like prenatal screening, supplying a parent with a car seat, offering parenting packages and/or connecting parents with quality childcare centers in their area. “There is a lot of infrastructure not in place in our state,” says Umstead, “so each region in all Smart Beginnings organizations is trying to work in its location to figure out what can be done to make sure there are good childhood programs for all children, and that it’s equitable.”

For volunteers of Smart Beginnings, the reward for what they do comes in the form of the successes they learn about, such as when a childcare business thrives. The most rewarding is “when we hear from parents and childcare providers that they couldn’t have done this without us,” says Umstead. And, sometimes, those stories come from childcare providers with limited resources who are only able to stay open because Smart Beginnings provided them with something they needed to be successful. “They’re not part of the school system; they’re not paid much — they’re feeling seen now and feeling capable and viable; when we hear their gratitude, it makes us proud we’re doing this work,” says Umstead.

As Smart Beginnings moves forward, its leaders are looking at their own preferences in terms of how they spend their leisure time. “We’re trying to build a supportive and compassionate culture in the midst of an overwhelming workload; everyone knows Diane is pretty intense and about my passion for making things better for kids,” quips Umstead. This passion, says Umstead, comes from the sense of service her parents instilled in her when she was very young. “When I was little, I was raised in the church, and missionaries would come and talk and I would be like… that’s what I’m going to do. Even though I didn’t do it in foreign lands, I’ve done it in many local areas,” she says. Umstead continues fulfilling this mission through Smart Beginnings, making certain no child gets left behind.

Smart Beginnings
Address: 11832 Canon Blvd., Ste. F, Newport News, VA 23606
Phone: 757-240-2731
Contact: Diane Umstead, executive director

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