Lisa Mullins didn’t plan to go into early childhood education when she left her job at a Department of Defense-run factory in 2014. She quit because she simply wanted more time to spend with her kids.

“I missed the field trips. I missed holidays. I missed all the stuff,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going on because I worked long hours.”

Soon after, however, Mullins became a substitute teacher at Henry Elementary School in Franklin County, where her children attended school. A year later, she was offered a paraprofessional position with the school’s pre-K program. Becoming a paraprofessional, Mullins said, allowed her to spend more time with her children before they moved on to middle school. It also helped her discover a passion for early childhood development.

“After working there for a while, you kind of figure out which age group you like,” Mullins said. “The little ones were my favorite.”

Since then, Mullins has worked hard to obtain additional training that could benefit her students. She’s earned both a Career Studies Certificate and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Early Childhood Education from Virginia Western Community College. She’s also pursuing a Bachelor’s of Independent Study degree at James Madison University, which will allow her to instruct pre-K through third grade classes in Virginia. Eventually, Mullins said, she hopes to become a teacher, something that wouldn’t have been possible without the financial support of the Davenport Institute for Early Childhood Development.

“I worked in a factory for 15 years and made probably three to four times what I make now. When you take that much of a pay cut, there’s no way you can fund yourself to go back to school,” Mullins said. “Davenport offering the money is the only reason I chose to go back. I couldn’t have done it otherwise.”

Founded by Ben Davenport, a Pittsylvania County businessman and entrepreneur, and his wife, Betty, the Davenport Institute aims to improve the quality of early childhood education in Southwest Virginia. Upon its launch in 2016, Ben Davenport seeded the institution with $1 million, which has been used to create a program in partnership with the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education and Virginia’s Community Colleges. That program invites teachers who work with young children aged 0-5, like Mullins, to pursue low- or no-cost certificates and degrees in early childhood education from four area community colleges: Virginia Western, Danville Community College, New River Community College and Patrick Henry Community College.

Kim Gregory, who serves as director of the Davenport Institute, said that the Davenports have always cared deeply about childhood development and education in the region. Through his work with the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, however, Ben Davenport has especially become concerned about the availability of affordable, quality childcare in Southwest and rural Virginia. In the Commonwealth, private early childhood programs are not required to hire staff with a specific level of educational attainment, meaning that some employees have received no formal education on child development or teaching strategies for young children.

“If it’s privately funded, a private childcare program or a faith-based program, there are no minimal teacher education qualification guidelines,” Gregory said. “And since more children in Virginia are served in private early childhood programs, most children are in classrooms with underqualified teachers. Our youngest children need and deserve better. This is a critical time in their brain development and school readiness.”

The program, which is now entering its third year, covers the costs of tuition and educational materials for applicants who are already working in early childhood education. Funds are provided after a participant has applied for federal financial aid and for two related scholarships that fund early childhood education in Virginia — one offered through Virginia Early Childhood Foundation’s Project Pathfinders program and the other through the Virginia Department of Social Services.

Through funding from the Davenport Institute, students can earn either a Career Studies Certificate in early childhood development or a similar certificate with an emphasis in infant and toddler care. Both courses require the completion of six courses, meaning most students finish the program in three semesters.

In addition to covering educational costs, the Davenport Institute provides students with job coaching and mentoring opportunities. The program makes it easy for students to apply what they’re learning in real time; during some portions of the program, faculty members observe students in their classrooms and come up with strategies for improving their educational techniques.

So far, Gregory said, 42 students have served as Davenport Scholars; 11 have graduated. Those graduates can then apply, as Mullins did, to become a Davenport Fellow. The courses they took during their certificate programs can be used during the fellowship to complete an associate degree at one of the participating colleges. Participation is not limited to paraprofessionals and other entry-level positions in early childhood education; directors are also encouraged to participate.

When the Davenport Institute hosted its first cohort in 2017, Virginia Western Davenport Navigator Sue Clark said that the program had to reach out proactively to early childhood programs in hopes of recruiting participants. Now, she said, programs are starting to inquire about how they can get their employees involved.

“A lot of times we’ll get a call asking me to come and present the program to a group of teachers,” she said. “And sometimes it’s just an email saying, ‘Will you reach out to this teacher? They’re interested.’ “

In addition to guiding her to a teaching career, Mullins said the certificate and associate degree programs have allowed her to become a better parent. Her courses have given her a better understanding of what the world is like for small children and granted her more patience at home.

“When you’re the parent that is here in the afternoon to cook supper and put the kids to bed, that’s all you see. You don’t understand how to respond to the kids. It’s just cut and dry,” she said. “Through all this schooling that I’ve gotten, it’s kind of helped me form a better relationship with my own kids.”

Mullins said the program has also given her confidence in her ability as an adult learner, as well as earned her the respect and admiration of her employers.

“I’m told every day how proud they are,” she said. “They know I’m making a good impression on my children because I’m setting an example. And it’s a good feeling to be my age, to go back to school and be successful and all that.”