Living out the mission of a land-grant university is no small feat, but it can very much impact those with some of the smallest feet.

That’s a goal of Kim Thomason, who joined Virginia Tech as the program manager for early childhood education initiatives, last spring. She is coordinating the university’s effort to identify community-based solutions to address the lack of adequate education opportunities for the youngest children within the Virginia Tech community and area surrounding the Blacksburg campus.

“The intent is really to follow that land-grant university mission of community engagement,” Thomason said.

The position grew out of a child care working group the university established in 2018 with the goal of improving quality, access, affordability, and flexibility of child care within our communities. One of the group’s recommendations was to establish a position that could work across the New River Valley, greater Washington, D.C., metro region, and the Roanoke Valley to expand child care options for university employees.   

Since hired, Thomason has focused on networking with individuals and groups across campus, building relationships with partners across the region, and identifying opportunities to advance the university’s commitment to advancing caregiving programs and services.

This initiative comes at a critical time for early childhood education, not only in the New River Valley, but across the commonwealth and country. The COVID-19 pandemic, stagnate wages, and high turnover rates have combined to cause a teacher shortage in most areas, which has created a stressful situation for parents, employers, and providers alike.

“In Blacksburg, child care centers are operating at about half of their licensed capacity right now due to a lack of teachers, leaving many families without care and the remaining teachers stretched thin,” said Jessica Wirgau, CEO of the Community Foundation of the New River Valley.

Wirgau said recruiting and retaining educators had long been a challenge for the field because of low pay and the limited providers able to offer benefits. The pandemic has exacerbated the problem and led even some long-time educators to shift their careers to work that pays more in less stressful environments.

Thomason’s work to address this challenge focuses on three areas — quality, access, and affordability. She aims to provide resources and build a network for working parents to support them in meeting their child care needs. She will also support providers in reaching and keeping that standard and work with those providers, as well as employers and parents, to navigate expanding access while keeping offerings affordable.

It’s a complex issue, but Thomason said the first step is simply creating connections.

“Right now, it’s about awareness of current resources and stabilization,” Thomason said. “Virginia Tech is striving to support and provide resources to working parents to obtain access to quality early care and education. Success will come from the networks created that allow for consistent communication about these issues. Consistent communication is important to any initiative, and I invite open conversations to discuss the things that have been going well and the current struggles.”

Thomason was also part of a team who developed a website dedicated to curating caregiving resources from multiple sources into one space. This centralized set of resources makes it easier for faculty, staff, and students to realize support for caregiving.

Katie Carmichael, an associate professor in the Department of English, voiced support for Thomason. A mother of two, Carmichael has been a vocal advocate for caregiving support, which she believes is critical to employees reaching their full potential. She has been encouraged by what she’s seen so far from Thomason.

“She’s just like a mobilizing force,” Carmichael said. “She’s very skilled at making connections with people and has a great interpersonal, one-on-one data gathering method, but also has all the knowledge of the federal and state-level systems involved with child care.”

Written by Travis Williams