RI Early Childhood Conference


At the annual early childhood conference, The Rhode Island Association for the Education of Young Children recognizes outstanding examples of early childhood educators and professionals by awarding The Sue Connor Special Friend of Rhode Island’s Children – Early Childhood Advocate, The Sue Connor Special Friend of Rhode Island’s Children – Early Childhood Educator, and RIAEYC’s Rising Star Award. Nominations for these awards come from fellow early childhood professionals in Rhode Island and are reviewed by the R.I. Early Childhood Conference Committee.

The individuals who receive The Sue Connor Special Friend of Rhode Island’s Children – Early Childhood Advocate and the The Sue Connor Special Friend of Rhode Island’s Children – Early Childhood Educator have made a significant contribution to early childhood education in Rhode Island in his or her career. Sue Connor is a long-serving member of Rhode Island AEYC and she worked for more than 40 years toward providing high quality early childhood experiences for children, families and professionals in the field. Her love of children and her commitment to families and staff has been evident in all of her work.  The awards were renamed for her in 2014.

The Early Childhood Advocate Award was given to Maureen Manion (Tri-County Community Action Agency) and Hailey L’Heureux (Dr. Day Care).

Maureen’s nomination noted, “Maureen’s dedication to early Childhood Education is like nothing I’ve ever seen. She is so knowledgeable and experienced…She is leader, a team player, a great confidant and also a great person to talk to on a personal level.”

Hailey’s nomination spoke of her as “a fierce early childhood advocate and has taken every opportunity to make her voice heard locally and in D.C.” It continues, “I’ve been lucky enough to watch her along her professional journey and she has shown time and time again that is a passionate advocate for early childhood initiatives. Hailey has pushed herself outside of her comfort zone to make sure that hers and her colleagues voices heard. I’m very proud of Hailey and all of her advocacy and contributions made for the early childhood workforce in Rhode Island.”

The Early Childhood Educator award was given to Kim Maine (Sunshine Child Development Center) and Valencia Garrett-Friend (Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center).

Kim founded her center, Sunshine Child Development Center, in 1989, and according to her nomination, she “has continued to grow and build this program to not only help the children to thrive, but her teachers as well… Her passion for early childhood education resonates to the staff, children, and families in her program. She encourages her teachers to continue to learn and educate themselves which keeps our classrooms as up to date and knowledgeable as possible.”

Three nominations were received for Valencia, and all of them point to her decades-long dedication to early childhood education. One shared, “She’s the backbone of the center. She is the community we all talk about. She has taught many stars and makes an impact in everyone’s life. [She is] truly a gem.”

RIAEYC’s Rising Star Award is awarded to a young or emerging professional in early childhood education that demonstrates a passion and dedication to the field. Recipients go above and beyond through advocacy, professional learning, and by exhibiting leadership potential.

The Rising Star Award was given to Tiaja Gundy (Federal Hill House). Her nomination read, “She is a strong confident educator who wanted to share her story and advocate for Early Childhood professionals. Tiaja started by sharing her experience in the DHS Infant/Toddler Registered Apprenticeship program video that was presented at the 2023 TEACH National conference in North Carolina.  Tiaja shared her story April 20th, 2023 with former congressman David N. Cicilline, now president of the Rhode Island Foundation when he visited her at the Federal Hill House Early Learning Center.  Tiaja Spoke at the Solve the Early Educator Staffing Crisis webinar.  She presented at the Education Pathways Event hosted by RIAEYC and the Career and Technical Education program. Tiaja continued her advocacy by testifying on May 3rd, 2023 at the state house for the Early Educators Investment Act.”

RIAEYC is proud to recognize these stellar examples of early childhood educators at our annual conference, which brought together 300 early childhood professionals for a day of networking and professional learning after a three-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. RIAEYC’s Board President, Martha Donovan, shares, “The RIAEYC conference was a day of celebrating! So many from the RI early childhood community reunited after years without a conference. The day was filled with excitement, inspiration, and rejuvenation. We witnessed a reconnection of relationships and the making of new ones. What a thrill to be presenting the Sue Connor Special Friends Awards once again. Hearing about the ongoing work each recipient is doing to elevate quality education for all children serves as inspiration to us all.  The awardees demonstrate a commitment to children, families, and the broader early childhood community. Their efforts ripple out into surrounding communities encouraging others to follow their lead. Join us in congratulating them on their continued efforts in the field.

“Let us all make time to regularly elevate each other for our important work we do on behalf of children, families, and the early childhood field. This can be recognized by a smile, a thumbs up, a verbal comment of a job well done, or an ask to learn more from a colleague.  Thank you all for showing up each day to make a difference!”