Smart Start leader got her own start in Person County


A small town woman’s love for children led her to embark upon her life’s dream of helping children statewide.

Through her dedication Cindy Watkins has made her mark both locally and throughout North Carolina.

National Women’s History Month, which runs throughout the month of March, has celebrated the work of many, but the N.C. Partnership for Children’s president is creating history each and every day.

“How important it is to make an impact where you are,” said Watkins.

Watkins career with the nonprofit has spanned the lifetime of the state’s Smart Start program.

Her career took off when she and her husband decided to move to North Carolina.

Watkins laughs and says together they made the decision to choose the location that seemed to fit the best.

The location that best accommodated the new job and graduate school commute at the time was Roxboro.

‘Landed in
the right place’

“How fortunate I was to have landed in Roxboro. It was a wonderful place to raise my children. We landed in the right place,” said Watkins.

Aside from her years at Lynchburg College, Watkins served as both an educator and guidance counselor for Woodland, North and North End Elementary Schools.

Her last job in education was at Person High School serving as their guidance counselor.

“I felt I needed to do more than I could do in a classroom,” said Watkins.

Her inspiration to this day comes from her children.

Throughout her years in teaching Watkins describes having instances where students had never held a book or been read to before.

“I just want a child to be successful and if we can get to them early enough then there is no limit to what we can achieve,” said Watkins.

Watkins was named Executive Director of the Person County Partnership for Children in 1994 when the county was among the first in the state to became part of the Smart Start program.

She left Person County to become Alamance’s Partnership for Children’s executive director in 2006.

In 2013 she became the executive director in Guilford County. The upward climb to increasing larger partnerships led to her appointment in 2014 as president of the statewide organization.

“Getting children ready to be in school – that is my life’s work,” said Watkins.

Watkins describes Partnership for Children as a non-profit organization that helps prepare students for school.

“I have taught them to love words. They began to understand more about the imagination,” said Watkins. “Having had no exposure to becoming avid readers and now every child can have that opportunity.”

Garrard says Person County has a strong relationship with the state Partnership for Children since this was Watkins’ professional birthplace.

‘Celebrating what comes next’

The program’s areas of focus include literacy, parent support, promoting childhood health and high quality healthcare.

Earlier this month, Partnership for Children celebrated Smart Start’s 25th Anniversary Gala at the Marbles Museum.

This year’s guests included Dolly Parton, former Gov. Jim Hunt and Gov. Roy Cooper.

Both Watkins and Roxboro’s Executive Director for Partnership for Children, Ann Garrard, shared their excitement about the event, which was attended by about 750 people.

Both Watkins and Parton were brought together on stage the night of the gala.

“You can’t be around Dolly for long without feeling her infectious energy. It’s her heart and passion in making sure each child gets a book,” said Watkins.

In 2003, Watkins, Wachovia and the United Way gathered funding to bring together the Dolly Parton Imagination Library to Person County.

The Dolly Parton Imagination Library is an international program that mails books to children from ages zero to five.

Person County was the first district in the state to have the imagination library.

According to Watkins, it has been a process in the making over the last 17 years to make the program statewide.

North Carolina lawmakers have invested $10.5 million for Smart Start to administer the program throughout the state.

“Most of the credit goes out to our legislators who have been willing to invest in this,” said Watkins.

Garrard estimates Partnership for Children has helped serve 65 percent of Person County’s children over the last 10 years.

As this fiscal year comes to an end the program has provided for 1,646 children and delivered 12,075 books.

An estimated 600,000 children are eligible for the program statewide.

“This was the highlight of my professional career. Being on stage with her (Parton) and knowing the impact that we were making,” said Watkins.

Garrard also explains that, while the Partnership for Children is a non-profit organization, the library program is also funded through a grant received from the state partnership.

“We do have quite a unique and personal tie to all of this,” said Garrard.

“We have had great support from the community because it does cost money to do this even though Dolly Parton does put a large portion into it,” said Garrard.




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