VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — A program in Virginia Beach is working to make sure little learners are on the right path.

Virginia Beach was selected as one of five cities to participate in an early childhood innovation grant through Bloomberg Philanthropies in September 2019. The three-year grant totaled $448,000 in funding plus educational materials. 

During the duration of the grant, Virginia Beach reached more than 737 children, from infants to five year olds with its Virginia Beach TALKS programs. 

For the past three years, the program has been impactful in helping families and children, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In July, the early childhood program received a grant from the Hampton Roads Community Foundation to continue to support the Virginia Beach TALKS program. The recent grant is $75,000 over the next three years.

The program uses LENA technology, language environment analysis, to improve a child’s language and improve school readiness.

Virginia Beach’s LENA Start is a 10-week program for parents. This program is for parents for children up to three years old. Research shows this is a critical time for early learning and brain development.

Three-year-old Isaiah is a LENA graduate. He has no problem having full conversations about books or recognizing his colors. His mom, Donna Watkins credits LENA Start for his ability to effectively communicate his thoughts and feelings so early on.

“It’s a good place to help your child communicate with you and it helps build your relationship.” 

Isaiah was 10 months old when his mom signed up for the class.

“You’re helping really to build the connection in their brains.”

Teresa Hunter’s daughter Ivy is another success story. Ivy was just two months old when she joined.

“It’s to help you increase your babies brain development, by talking more and not using electronics.”

Hunter loved the classes so much, she asked for a job with the program.

“It is life-changing! I’m not just saying that as a parent who took the program. I’m saying that from parents that I taught.”

Parents in Virginia Beach meet once a week and get a free book every class. In-person classes offer free childcare and food for families. There are also virtual options.

Barb Lito, the GrowSmart coordinator, tells 10 On Your Side that LENA Start will help prepare kids for kindergarten, third grade reading, high school graduation and the future workforce.

“It’s really you talking, reading, singing and playing with your child that will help support their healthy development and language.”