With just over two years of service to the Leesburg community, Little Tree Huggers LLC has just received its second sustainable business award. 2016 earned them the Loudoun Sustainable Business Challenge Platinum award and this year they were awarded the County’s top award: the Loudoun Sustainable Business Excellence Award on October 19, 2017!
Little Tree Huggers LLC is Loudoun County Virginia’s first bilingual eco-green preschool with the goal of encouraging children to connect with nature, care for the environment, and celebrate and respect the diversity of our multicultural world. With a carefully planned farm-like setting, historic bank barn and chicken coop, plus plenty of surrounding wildlife, Little Tree Huggers is committed to offering daily opportunities to learn about and care for the environment. Lia D. Johnson, the founder and Director is passionate about the arts, embracing all cultures and taking care of our planet. With a quarter century of experience in early childhood education, Johnson is convinced that experiencing and learning about nature and the environment are integral to creating the culture of environmental stewardship our planet needs to survive. In her acceptance speech at Rehau North America in Leesburg, Johnson told the assembled group “yes we have solar, we have geothermal but what it’s really about is the children and our responsibility to teach them by setting the example.”
As early as December 2015, Johnson was quoted as saying they were striving to become the first carbon neutral pre-school in the area. “We believe that an eco-green environment is essential for healthy minds and bodies. We do our part daily to sustain the planet, celebrate the wonders of nature and set the example for other households and business in the area.” In order to achieve this goal, the Johnson’s had their property accredited as an Audubon at Home Wildlife Sanctuary by the Loudoun County Nature Conservancy and converted their oil burning HVAC system to geothermal. They started with a solar panel providing ventilation for their chicken coop and immediately started looking for partners to assist with the expansion of their sustainable business vision
The challenges were daunting because it wasn’t only a 4,200 square foot preschool and home that needed to be carbon neutral, the property’s centerpiece – a 200 year old bank barn needed to be heated and cooled as well. Nothing was left off the table as the Johnson’s embarked on this journey. They even contacted local colleges and universities to see if a combination of solar, wind or even a micro-hydroelectric system would do the trick. Early on, however, it became clear that the first step was to convert their oil burning hvac system to geothermal. Solar is more widely known and marketed. However, the return on investment for geothermal is far better than solar in this region due to the low cost of electricity and limited sunlight compared to other parts of the country.
North American Geothermal, therefore, became Little Tree Huggers’ first sustainable business partner. And, although the savings were appreciable, the Johnsons felt strongly enough about setting the example for the local community that they went about restoring their bank barn with a combination of Amish Craftsmanship from Sylvan and Stoltfus Builders and the modern expertise of Window Nation who installed replacement windows, doors and insulated siding around the entire structure. The barn may have been on its way to being insulated but the heating and cooling challenge scared away more contractors than it attracted. Modern Mechanical finally came through with a high efficiency Mitsubishi mini-split system. The final challenge was solar and for this challenge the Johnson’s partnered with Prospect Solar to design and install a 32 panel solar array on the school’s 200 year old back barn at the end of 2016.
The results of all these efforts have been astounding! The twelve month operating cost to heat and cool the 4,200 square foot house and school with geothermal was only $576 and, with close to 11,000 kWh hours of solar energy production, average total energy cost over the last eight months has been right at $100 per month to heat, cool and power over 6,500 square feet of facilities! As the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce says “Go Green to Save Green.”
Little Tree Huggers brings together the best of the early childhood educational endeavors Johnson has worked with over the years. As a result, lessons in art, math, science, history, and Geography, as well as regular story time are held as much as possible outdoors. The preschoolers, aged three to six, are also taught Spanish daily, as the Argentine native incorporates Spanish into the daily curriculum. Another part of LTH’s mission is to expose the children to the various languages and cultures represented in each class. Children are encouraged to prepare projects highlighting family histories and backgrounds; and parents are further involved by participating in LTH’s Community Hero Program, a program throughout the year, which involves parents sharing their talents and family backgrounds with the children.
An average day has the children spending much of the time, rain or shine, observing over 20 native birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and insects needing help due to loss of habitat as well as helping out on the working farm. They feed the animals — two ponies, two alpacas, three goats, a dozen hens, two ducks and two guinea hens — and help clean out the pens and put down fresh straw. In the mornings, they observe the abundance of flora and fauna as they pass the school’s windflower and pollinator gardens, beautiful forest glade, bridge and stream, on their way to the chicken coop to collect eggs - which in turn become the basis of a tasty cooking lesson later in the day. Lunches are spent further observing their surroundings and discussing the best ways to reuse, recycle or compost any waste. During playtime, the children’s creativity leads the way. You won’t see a multi-thousand-dollar playground at Little Tree Huggers. Instead, the children have access to a recycled wood tree house, green house, teepee, log cabin, nature observation deck, an obstacle course made out of natural stones, logs and branches, wooden blocks and lots and lots of free space. “Nature is what provides the opportunity for creative learning,” Johnson says.
As far as risk is concerned, LTH strictly follows Virginia Department of Social Services guidelines, maintains a student/teacher ratio of 6 to 1, and regularly involves parents in activities. In addition, as the curriculum is cumulative, progressively encouraging interaction with the animals and fostering responsibility, LTH offers a year round program for full time students, with a minimum of 6 hours a day and two weeks off in July. Tuition starts at $960 a month for six hours five days a week and goes up to $1,200 for ten hours a day five days a week.