Editor’s note: With Virginia Tech Giving Day 2022 beginning at noon, Feb. 23, a series of stories highlighting the impact of donations are featured on VTx this month.

On a recent wintry morning, while their parents were at work across Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus, a group of 2- to 5-year-old children were at “work” themselves in a brightly lit center on Prices Fork Road. Some were constructing towers of wooden blocks with shaving cream mortar. Others were busy at a media table, playing with measuring cups. Some were painting. Others were creating clay creatures. And a few sat in the reading corner, listening to stories.

This hub of activity is the Little Hokie Hangout (LHH), a flexible, early education center subsidized by the Graduate School to meet the child care needs of graduate students with families, but it also serves staff, faculty, and undergraduates with children ages 20 months to 5 1/2 years. Care is provided for three sessions each day — morning, afternoon, and evening – and the center operates from 8:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, following the university’s calendar for closures and holidays.

The state-licensed center launched in January 2015 and operates on the Luther Memorial Lutheran Church campus. Since its opening, LHH, as the center is known, has served more than 80 families. More than 100 children have attended sessions, said Marin Riegger, center director. 

image of a blond woman in a ballcap reading to two little girls at Little Hokie Hangout
The Reading Corner is a popular spot at the Little Hokie Hangout early education center. Marin Riegger photo

Virginia Tech graduate students have long expressed a need for stable, flexible child care.

On annual surveys sent to students asking what additional services they need, nearly 19 percent of students reported that they have children, and almost half of those respondents said they need child care services for their dependents. A majority of those respondents said they need services five days a week. Results from a caregiver survey conducted by the Virginia Tech Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost in fall 2020 noted that “graduate students are the least likely group to have dedicated and consistent child care arrangements.”

Riegger said that many international students with families rely on the center for child care. “We have a huge international contingent,” she said. “We’re teaching children English for the first time every day.”

Dean Aimée Surprenant noted the importance for graduate students and other Virginia Tech community members with families to have access to quality child care. “Many graduate students juggle child care needs with studies and work as graduate assistants, graduate teaching assistants, or graduate research assistants,” Surprenant said. “This program helps ease that burden and provides a welcoming, safe, and creative environment for children to grow and thrive. The Graduate School is proud to continue to innovate in support of our students.” 

The center has 12 fully trained and certified staff members who work on a flexible schedule. Riegger said LHH has a staff member-to-child ratio of 1-to-4.

“We use donor funds to keep the ratios small,” she said. “That allows for a great deal of one-on-one interaction. We feel that is really important to have. We try to hire people in who are in the child care and child-development fields. We really want children and their families to have a quality experience.”

Additionally, Riegger said that the staff is a team. “We have people who really want to work here every day.”

Former staff member Connor Hicks concurred. “Working at Little Hokie Hangout taught me so much about young people: the way they communicate, engage, and collaborate,” he said. “It also taught me so much about myself: my patience, my cognitive flexibility, my creativity, and my joy. It’s a job where, if everyone feels good at the end of the day, you did amazing.”

image of two little girls and a little boy at a red media table playing with toys
Children play at a media table during a session at Little Hokie Hangout. Marin Riegger for Virginia Tech

Parents pay only for the sessions they use. That flexibility is an important feature, Riegger said, adding that many programs require students to attend full time. Parents also appreciate it.

“The time blocks and payment schedule were so incredibly helpful, and it took away a lot of stress on our family while providing our child with a wonderful social atmosphere that is so needed for his age,” said Laurel Glenn, whose husband was a graduate student when they enrolled their child. “The program really, really helped us when I thought all was a bit lost in keeping our family rolling.” 

The center also provides scholarships for families who cannot afford the reduced rates, thanks to donor support and contributions to the Little Hokie Hangout Fund. Center tuition waivers are granted on a case-by-case basis, and students who have received this assistance have said it made continuing their education possible.

Virginia Tech alumnus Jon Rucker and his wife, Colleen, are founding donors to the LLH fund. “As parents of young children, we were intrigued when the Little Hokie Hangout was introduced to us,” Jon Rucker said. “We made a day trip to Blacksburg with our children to visit the LHH first hand. We loved what we saw, and knew immediately we needed to be part of its success.”

Rebecca Shelton calls LHH “the absolute best first child care program I could have imagined for the family.” Her child began attending the center at age 2 1/2 and spent two years there. “Our child immediately benefited from the engaging activities, learning and socializing at LHH,” she said. “The program prioritizes active outdoor time, independence, child-led learning, and discovery.” Shelton also noted the connections parents in the program develop with each other, which lead to playdates and friendships outside LHH hours.

Khristina Tyhurst, whose child attended LHH while she was pursuing her degree, had high praise for the program. “LHH staff was wonderful in helping my child adapt to staying at school without me,” Tyhurst said. “There was extraordinary progress in speech, potty training, and gross motor skills, thanks to older kids. I really appreciated the programming: While flexible and allowing plenty of time for free play and exploration, they incorporated cognitive skill-building seamlessly and beautifully.”

The Little Hokie Hangout Fund is one of the ways donors can make gifts to support the university and its programs on Giving Day, which runs for 24 hours starting at 12 p.m. EST on Feb. 23. For more information, contact the childcare team at childcare@vt.edu.

“We are so grateful for the generous support provided by our dedicated donors,” said Surprenant. “Any gift to this fund will have an enormous impact on the lives of our students and their families.”  

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