Story By Hilary Brady
Photography By Suzy King
“If our children thrive, our community will thrive. I truly believe that.”
Linda Gironda is convinced that our young children will define our future. And she is committed to building only the best future for Brunswick County, beginning with a solid foundation of happy, healthy, intelligent children.
Formerly a kindergarten and first grade teacher and now the executive director of a nonprofit organization dedicated to early child development, Gironda has been making a difference in the lives of little ones for her entire career.
After teaching in Connecticut and South Carolina for 11 years, Gironda joined a First Steps program in Georgetown, South Carolina. First Steps is an organization focused on establishing early education and ensuring school readiness for children under the age of four. Gironda’s drive for early child development led her to success and satisfaction as the organization’s first executive director.
“It is vitally important for all young children to be nurtured and cared for,” says Gironda. “I want all young children to prosper. They are our future.”
Although Gironda enjoyed her time at First Steps, she was intrigued by an opportunity that came about with a First Steps counterpart in Brunswick County, a group called Brunswick County Partnership for Children.
The accomplished and ambitious Gironda was a catch for the Brunswick County nonprofit, which was successful in securing her as its new executive director. And with that, Gironda packed up and moved to Ocean Isle Beach.
“That was seven years ago,” Gironda says.
Brunswick County Partnership for Children, which was eight years old at the time of Gironda’s arrival, was formed with a mission in mind that matched Gironda’s motto: build a better community tomorrow by educating the children of today.
Under Gironda’s leadership the organization changed its name to Smart Start of Brunswick County in order to better recognize its primary funding source. It has developed multiple successful projects and helped countless children and families.
“Our administrative staff and board of directors are a very energetic group of individuals with same purpose in mind — making sure the area’s children are healthy, learning and ready for school,” says Gironda. “I think our projects are strong and are making a significant difference for the families and children in Brunswick County.”
Gironda is right. It’s a small team making a big impact. Smart Start’s staff of just 15 people includes parent educators, childcare consultants, a Raising a Reader coordinator, a More at Four pre-kindergarten coordinator, a childcare resource and referral team, a program and evaluations director and multiple program coordinators.
Helen Gabriel is Smart Start of Brunswick County’s program and evaluations director. Gabriel and Gironda share a background in education and a passion to impact the future of our young children.
“We are in a position to really change the future of children,” says Gabriel. “At this young age, we have huge opportunities to make significant changes.”
Ask area parents, educators and children alike and it’s evident that significant changes are being made to enhance the quality of life for local families.
Programs for the People
Smart Start of Brunswick County works to increase the quality of education and health for all Brunswick County area children under the age of five through a variety of programs.
Perhaps one of Smart Start’s most recognized areas of community contribution is its position as a childcare resource and referral center. Smart Start educates and assists families with children birth to five years old in the selection of high-quality childcare options.
Smart Start has dual duties when it comes to the childcare parent/center dynamic, aiding families in locating optimal childcare options and also assisting childcare centers in increasing the quality of care available. The nonprofit’s consultants provide on-site training and support, assisting the centers in meeting and exceeding educational and state requirements so that only the best opportunities are available to these families.
Outside of the childcare setting, Smart Start offers one-on-one opportunities to increase literacy among little ones. The Raising a Reader program is a new initiative at Smart Start, a program that encourages family bonding over books.
“Raising a Reader helps parents understand the importance of bringing books and reading into the home,” explains Gabriel. “We get families involved in what we call ‘book cuddling’, sitting with their child and reading. The program involves a weekly rotation of books, which exposes children to a wide variety of reading material. It’s a really a great program that we are very excited about.”
Another Smart Start initiative intended to prepare our little population to become star pupils is the More at Four pre-kindergarten program. More at Four is a classroom experience offering four year olds an opportunity to follow an established curriculum in an educational environment led by highly qualified educators.
“It’s a play-based curriculum, so it’s fun,” says Gabriel. “But, at the same time, it’s interesting and educational. So it’s a great way to help children transition into school more seamlessly and successfully.”
Smart Start of Brunswick County isn’t limited to the childcare arena. The organization also offers in-home assistance with parenting skills.
“Our family support program sends educators into the home to help with parenting skills,” explains Gabriel. “We help them learn to intentionally interact with their children, how to play effectively and intentionally.”
Young children have quality educational opportunities available thanks to Smart Start’s dedication to enhancing quality childcare centers as well as its Raise a Reader and More at Four programs. And children are happy thanks to Smart Start’s family support program.
The final component to Smart Start’s outreach is its assistance in the healthcare field.
“With our ABCD (Assuring Better Child Health and Development) Project, we have a registered nurse who works hand in hand with local medical providers to ensure children get proper screenings on time and any issues are referred out to appropriate services,” says Gironda. “Our goal is to improve the quality of healthcare for our young children through early intervention.”
“We have multiple programs at Smart Start,” says Gironda, “and every one of them brings extreme value to the community.”
Multiple programs and massive ambitions have led to nothing short of a magnificent impact. Smart Start’s resource and referral team services 50 childcare centers and childcare homes, its parents as teachers team consults with 90 families and its More at Four program enrolls 423 children.
“One of the most wonderful experiences for me so far was at a More at Four graduation,” recalls Gironda. “Seeing the tremendous outpouring of family support for each child showed me how interested families are in their child’s success, how proud they are of their children. Every family wants their child to succeed. That’s what Smart Start is designed to do. And it’s why I do what I do.”
You can help Smart Start of Brunswick County continue its mission of developing happy, healthy and ready-to-succeed children by purchasing a creative cookbook. Smartie Pies is a collection of more than 120 recipes submitted by local families. Accompanying the sweet and savory recipes is an array of artwork drawn by local children.
“The children did a beautiful job,” says Gironda. “The objective was not only to raise funds for Smart Start, but to also bring families together, enhance literacy skills, encourage creativity and pride. It’s a wonderful sense of accomplishment for the kids, the families get a great cookbook, and we raise dollars for Smart Start. We accomplished all of our goals.”
Smartie Pies cookbooks are $20 each. To purchase, call the Smart Start of Brunswick County main office at (910) 754-3166.