The Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth (VFHY) has awarded a three-year, $180,000 grant to United Way of Southwest Virginia for work to improve the health of young children throughout Southwest Virginia. With this grant, Smart Beginnings Southwest Virginia and Smart Beginnings New River Valley will assist regional childcare and preschool programs to offer the Al’s Pals curriculum.

Al’s Pals is a nationally recognized, resilience-based early childhood curriculum and teacher training program that develops social, emotional and behavioral skills in children 3 to 8 years old. With puppets, music, stories, and fun activities, teachers help young children express their feelings appropriately, think about others and make healthy choices. Teachers lead the 15-minute activities with children twice a week for 23 weeks. Research has shown that Al’s Pals has a positive effect on children’s behavior in the classroom and the program is recommended by a number of national organizations.

More than 120 classrooms throughout Southwest Virginia have already signed on to participate in the program. During the first year, 40 classrooms will receive Al’s Pals kits and teachers will attend a two-day training workshop. More than 700 children will learn from Al’s Pals. By the end of the third year, 2,000 children should be enrolled in Al’s Pals programs in Southwest Virginia

Buckey Boone, Director of Smart Beginnings Southwest Virginia noted the tremendous response to this opportunity: “I was pleased to learn that so many child development programs in our region are excited about using the Al’s Pals curriculum to help their children learn healthy habits. We are glad Smart Beginnings can facilitate bringing this curriculum to centers that might find it difficult to afford on their own.” Smart Beginnings has been working with many of the same child development centers that participate in Smart Beginnings’ Virginia Star Quality Initiative.

Through grant from VFHY, Smart Beginnings will also work with the partner childcare and preschool programs to encourage families to keep their children safe from tobacco products. Information about the benefits of smoke-free homes will also be distributed to families. Dr. Melody Counts, medical director for Mt. Rogers Health District, explained: “We want young children in Southwest Virginia to grow up healthy and we know that children who are not exposed to secondhand smoke have healthier lungs. Also, children whose parents do not smoke are less likely to smoke as adults.” Mt. Rogers Health District has agreed to assist in this educational component of the project.

Travis Staton, CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia, pointed out that this project supports two key goals of the agency: improving the education and health of the community. “Smart Beginnings is working hard to make sure that children arrive at kindergarten ready to learn,” Staton said. “With the Al’s Pals project we can help improve young children’s learning as well as their health. Because Smart Beginnings Southwest Virginia and Smart Beginnings New River Valley are working with so many partners, I expect that more children will soon arrive at kindergarten healthy and ready to learn.”

Forty teachers will begin their training for the Al’s Pals curriculum in August and begin implementing the program in their classes this fall.

About the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth (VFHY):
Established by the Virginia General Assembly in 1999, the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth empowers Virginia’s youth to make healthy choices by promoting active, nutritious and tobacco-free living. Since the Foundation began its work in 2001, high school smoking in Virginia has been cut by more than 60 percent and the number of middle school smokers has dropped by more than 75 percent! The Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth directly reaches about 50,000 children each year through classroom-based prevention programs in public schools, after-school programs, community centers, day cares and prevention programs across the state. VFHY’s award-winning marketing campaigns deliver prevention messaging to more than 500,000 children annually. For more information, visit VFHY.org.

About United Way of Southwest Virginia:
United Way of Southwest Virginia is a volunteer organization providing support and visibility through tools, partners, advocacy, and other resources to advance the common good by focusing on improving education, helping people achieve financial stability, and promoting healthy lives, by mobilizing thousands of people to give, advocate, and volunteer to improve conditions across Southwest Virginia. United Way of Southwest Virginia now covers over 5,000 square miles approximately 12% of the state of Virginia, and serve more than 330,000 residents which includes Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Dickenson, Grayson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington and Wise counties, as well as the Cities of Galax and Norton.For more information on United Way of Southwest Virginia please visit netnswvarelief.wpengine.com.

About Smart Beginnings Southwest Virginia:
Smart Beginnings brings together child serving organizations, as well as concerned citizens, to promote the healthy development of young children, 0 to 5. Through the Star Quality program, Smart Beginnings supports child care and pre-school programs to provide the best possible services for children and their families. Serving Southwest Virginia from Wythe County to Lee County, Smart Beginnings is funded by the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation and supported by United Way of Southwest Virginia.