Giving all children healthy and strong starts in life.

Kids’ First Years puts your family first and connects you with opportunities for your young children.

Our Staff

Michelle Smith Howard

Michelle Smith Howard

Executive Director

Michelle Smith Howard is an experienced educator committed to addressing the socio-economic disparities and challenges affecting underserved communities. She began her career as an early childhood special education teacher and administrator with the District of Columbia Public Schools. She then served as the Director of Early Learning for the signature program of the Obama Administration’s White House Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative.

Additionally, Michelle has worked as the Director of Early Childhood Development and Intervention with Catholic Charities DC and as the Coordinator of Citywide Early Childhood Programs with Alexandria City Public Schools.

Michelle currently serves on the Virginia Department of Education Early Childhood Advisory Committee. She is also an Alexandria Chamber of Commerce 40 Under 40 Awardee.

Michelle holds a bachelor’s in political science from Southern University and A&M College. She also holds a master’s in early childhood special education and an educational specialist in educational leadership and administration from The George Washington University.

Michelle credits her love for education to her mother, a retired public school teacher, and to her pre-Kindergarten teacher. Her favorite children’s books are The Snowy Day and Caps for Sale.

Maria McDonald

Maria McDonald

Manager, Community Engagement and Partnerships

Maria McDonald graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in History and Art History. After working in American Furniture and Folk Art at Sotheby’s in New York, she moved to Washington, DC to work at The Phillips Collection. Working in a museum setting helped Maria realize that her passion was using art as a lens to explore different cultures and explain history. She completed her Masters in Art History and earned her teaching degree in Social Studies at American University. Maria worked at Bishop O’Connell High School for nine years and taught a variety or courses, including AP Art History, AP European History, World History, Humanities, and Yearbook, while also chairing the Fine Arts Department. She joined the Kids’ First Years team in the spring of 2019 as a project manager for the Preschool Development Grant.

Maria always had a passion for the subject matter that she taught and loved sharing that excitement with students. As the mother of two young children, she wants all children to be exposed to a love of learning early on so that they can embrace being life-long learners and have the tools necessary to succeed in life.

Although she finds it very difficult to pick just one children’s book that is her favorite, she loves reading Circus Ship by Chris Van Dusen with her boys.

Milagro Yanes Benitez

Milagro Yanes Benitez

Coordinator, Quality Measurement and Improvement

As an early childhood professional, Milagro has been committed to enhancing the quality of child care through various roles in early childhood education. She has supported educators, children, and their families as a home-based educator, family service specialist, and child development specialist for various Head Start Programs.

Milagro is an experienced Child Development Associate (CDA) Professional Development Specialist. Most recently, Milagro served as the Program Specialist for the Virginia Quality Initiative for the City of Alexandria. Milagro is a certified CLASS observer for Infants and Toddlers, a certified Early Intervention Specialist, and a registered child forensic interviewer.

Milagro considers herself a lifelong learner and challenges herself to stay current in early childhood practices. She holds a bachelor’s in criminal justice, a master’s in early childhood education, and has completed master’s level coursework in child development. Currently, Milagro is continuing her education at Loyola University, completing courses in curriculum design and personalized instruction.

As a mom of three, Milagro has many favorite children’s books, but her absolute favorites are What Do You Do With An Idea? and What Do You Do With A Chance?

Cecilia Garcia

Cecilia Garcia Meruvia

Coordinator, Family Connections

Cecilia Garcia is a bilingual, holistic, trauma-informed human services professional who has passionately served the needs of children, youth, and families for over 15 years. She provided counseling services, psychoeducational workshops and case management for over 900 families. Cecilia’s practice has focused on low-income immigrant youth and families that have experienced high levels of trauma and struggle with establishing connections in the community.

Cecilia loves getting involved with her son and husband in activities where they can assist the community and volunteer. She likes to learn about self-improvement, write poetry, practice meditation and dance. Her favorite children’s book is Three Little Monkeys.

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