Early Educator Spotlight Award Winners

These awards bring visibility to hard-working, compassionate professionals who are too often under appreciated. In Buncombe County the average early educator earns $13.37 an hour. This clashes with the importance of their job – caring for and educating children during their first 2,000 days, when over 95% of lifetime brain development happens. They also allow families to work and make ends meet and employers to hire and retain good workers. Read about the outstanding educators and stay tuned for a new award winner each month.

Donate to Support Early Educators Nominate an Early Educator Learn about the Child Care Crisis

July 2024 Award Winner

Melissa Kucin, Irene Wortham Early Learning Center

Carla nominated Melissa for this award because her son is in her class. Carla said, “Melissa is patient and flexible. She seems able to tailor class activities to fit all of her students’ needs. She is thoughtful, positive, consistent, and so much fun.” She appreciates that, “Melissa is very inclusive in her activities and even invites students to be part of the art community at the local level.”

Melissa speaks movingly about her passion for early education for over 20 years! “I wear many hats as a teacher. I am a teacher, a psychologist, a nurse, a coach, and so many other hats that change from day to day. My favorite hat is when I am an art teacher. I love it when I put black paint and yellow paint together and my student is excited when it turns green. When I put things out for children to explore and they find a part of their self, it’s so exciting and important for development in a gazillion ways.

It makes my soul light up and I truly feel that I am my best self in that moment. When you can say that about your work, I feel you are really blessed. It’s the idea that the adults and teachers are learning together, developing together, building our best selves. It is a rewarding experience and keeps me coming back every morning to my little classroom community with my whole heart and soul.”

June 2024 Award Winner

Martha Quiñones, Shema Family Child Care Home

Martha is wearing a brightly-colored button down shirt with koalas on it. She has cinnamon-colored skin, dark eyes, dyed chestnut-colored hair, and is smiling broadly while holding a board book titled

A toddler with brown hair, white skin, and a quizzical look on his face is sitting on the floor and holding a board book titled

Martha runs Shema Family Child Care Home, welcoming six children from infants to four years old into her home every weekday. She shares her native language of Spanish with them, using songs and bilingual books like “Colores.” She told us she loves to help kids grow and develop, while allowing their parents to go to work with the peace of mind that their children are safe, loved, and learning. Our Child Care Resources team supported Martha to navigate the child care licensing system in her second language (not easy!). She gained a higher star rating, which means she earns more for each child she cares for. Now she’s working on her degree in early education with our support. Martha even inspired her daughter to become an educator herself.  Now she dreams of partnering with her daughter to open a larger child care center in the future. Her compassionate care is a vital part of our community’s support system to meet the needs of all kids and families.

May 2024 Award Winner

Abigail Flynt, Head Start Teacher for 3- and 4-year-olds at Johnston Elementary School

Abigail has brown hair and glasses and is wearing a black t-shirt with a flannel long-sleeved shirt over it. They're standing outside on a playground with a jungle gym and trees in the background. They're smiling at the camera.

Abigail’s former co-teacher Lindsey nominated them for this award, explaining, “Abigail puts their heart and soul into educating children and offering support to the families.” Abigail has been an early educator for three years and their passion and expertise really shine. We asked about their favorite classroom activities with their students and Abigail told us, “I love making messes with kids doing art. I have a paint stain on these jeans because on Tuesday a bunch of my kids were being overly energetic and breaking things. And I said, ‘Hey guys, I see you have big feelings and you want to make a mess. Let’s do it together.’ And so we got out a giant bucket of paint and I let them put their feet and hands in it. They made a giant feelings mural out of all of the colors that they were feeling. Then we talk about colors and different emotions that we’ve assigned to them. I really love that because kids need channels for their very big emotions. It’s empowering and healing, and we build relationships with that because they know that I see what they need. I love our projects!”

Abigail is pursuing a Master’s in Education in Leadership, Policy, and Advocacy. They’re passionate about early education because “statistically speaking, children who participate in high-quality early care programs are more likely to be successful members of society. They are 70% less likely to be arrested for a violent crime before the age of 18 and they are over 73% more likely to graduate from college. The emotional intelligence we foster in early care programs heals generational trauma, gets parents back into the work force, and empowers families for success in their future. I come back every day because I get to invest in the future of our children and our country, and I feel very fortunate to do so.” Congrats Abigail! We applaud the wonderful work you do to shape children’s lives!

April 2024 Award Winner

Ella Reid, Preschool Teacher in a Two-Year-Old Classroom at Verner Center for Early Learning

Three blonde-haired toddlers are painting outside on a playground. They're wearing brightly-colored smocks and painting in shades of brown on a table. Their teacher, Ella, is sitting behind them and helping them paint while holding a toy care. Ella is white, her hair is blonde with patches dyed purple, she's wearing glasses and a pink t-shirt.

According to Ashley Parks, Teacher Residency Director at Verner, Ella brings her infectious energy to everything she does: mentoring a teacher-in-training, explaining the diapering and toileting procedure to a toddler for the 454th time in a day, or inviting families to take part in the life of the classroom. She honors each child’s family by featuring a photo of them. She skillfully supports students who are neurodiverse and have autism, learning disabilities, or sensory processing issues.

We asked Ella why she became an early educator and what keeps her coming back every morning to work with the kids and their families. Here’s her answer:
“I began my Early Childhood Education career 19 years ago. When I got into the classroom and experienced the joy and wonders of our world through the eyes of tiny humans, I was hooked!  I love connecting with children, guiding them through their daily struggles and wins, and discovering new skills and knowledge. Each moment is fresh and exciting when you work with children.  I can often be caught breaking into song about anything, since I’ve learned that when you sing it then it’s way more fun for littles and bigs alike.

At the end of the day I am tired after running and playing and holding space for all those big feelings in those tiny bodies. But I know I am impacting the lives of these children and families in a big and positive way. I may only have these children in my classroom from 1-3 years, but being able to lay a solid foundation for the future is so valuable. Since I was a little girl, I’ve always wanted to change the world. Thanks to this incredible career, I know I am creating a positive change. I teach these young children how to express their emotions safely, that they are loved unconditionally, that they are capable of hard things and that they can always ask for help.  They pick up on academic skills along the way, but those social skills cannot be skipped, so it is such an important part of my teaching practice.

I also love the connections I make with the parents and caregivers. Having worked primarily in Early Head Start, I have had an incredible opportunity to help families to advocate for their children, to see their children’s incredible gifts (especially if they tend to get a lot of negative feedback from others), and to support them through tough life situations.  Our families are incredible and so strong and each and every one loves their child so deeply.  Being able to give them the tools to advocate for the needs of their child in an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) meeting will benefit the child, but also the caregivers as they continue through school systems.

Verner also contributes to my desire to continue in this field. I am supported and valued daily as a professional as well as an individual.  They truly care about our teachers and recognize that at times we may need more than a paycheck.  They advocate and provide mental health services for teachers, to help us deal with all aspects of our lives, not just during work hours.”