Reigning Cats and Dogs in downtown Culpeper received a prestigious Virginia Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace Settings Award earlier this month.
Lindsey Nicholson, store manager of Reigning Cats and Dogs, praised owner Monica Chernin for her breastfeeding friendly and supportive environment.
“She has encouraged a uniquely strong bond and relationship for myself and my daughter by allowing me to have my daughter with me at work up until her first birthday,” Nicholson said. “I have never been away from my daughter for more than a few hours. This work environment Monica helped create has been instrumental to my breastfeeding success.”
The Virginia Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace Settings Awards is an awards program designed to recognize businesses who are providing support in the workplace to their breastfeeding employees. The Virginia Workplace Breastfeeding-Friendly Awards recognize the Commonwealth’s champions who have gone above and beyond many federal and state requirements for workplace support and are therefore leading the way for family wellness.
Reigning Cats and Dogs received the silver award for scoring more than eight out of 65 points available. Gold award winners scored more than 36 out of 65 points.
Chernin said the adventure started a little more than a year ago when she hired Nicholson to be the new store manager at Reigning Cats and Dogs, and a week later found out she was pregnant with her daughter AvaLee. Chernin said Nicholson was concerned it would affect her position, but the Reigning Cats and Dogs owner had a simple answer.
“It became, ‘just bring the baby,’” Chernin said. “I have a law practice in town, actually 20-plus years ago my assistant became pregnant and we just set up a nursery at the office. It’s always just been something that to me that’s the natural flow of things.”
So when Reigning Cats and Dogs received the Virginia Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace Settings Award, Chernin was surprised.
“It was shocking to me when Lindsey brought that in,” Chernin said. “What also was shocking to me, when I went to the list of the people who got it, and it was big corporations. We just had a mini closet that became the nursing area.”
AvaLee became a fixture in the store and customers loved her, Chernin said. She now goes to her aunt’s house for daycare, but in the 10 months that she called Reigning Cats and Dogs her second home - she made many friends, both human and furry.
Nicholson said her daughter loves animals and she got opportunities to pet many cats and dogs as they stopped in for toys and treats.
Nicholson said it was the family atmosphere that made her nursing period so easy and enjoyable.
“It was a team effort, for sure,” Nicholson said. “Just being given permission to do what was natural - I don’t have words for it. There’s not many businesses that have this open-arm policy. Our staff members were a huge influence on my success. We’re a family.”
Nicholson said the call of nature with AvaLee never caused customers any inconvenience, and they always asked to see the baby.
“Customers were never short or rude, they would just say ‘go take care of the baby,’” Nicholson said. “It was never a trial to have her here. There are many things that divide us, and this has just gone to show that the community is just the opposite when it comes down to it.”
For Chernin, who also owns her own law practice in Culpeper, coming to Reigning Cats and Dogs became extra fun with AvaLee around.
“I’m in the courthouse, which can be a very stressful place - with all the emotion - and I can just come play with AvaLee,” she said with a laugh.
Chernin said she recognizes the need to lift up women in her role as a female business owner.
“It is important,” Chernin said. “In the store we do a lot with fair trade products like Thistle Farms, which is a nonprofit that supports women who were prostitutes or victims of trafficking. Their product is called Love Heals. A portion of our proceeds will go to some group that is also supporting. We’ve tried here to not just be here as a business to make a profit, but to help others be empowered.”
Nicholson said that Chernin cleaned out a closet in the store and created a “great little office” for Nicholson to nurse, chance and work with the baby.
“(She) literally hauled cabinets and all sorts of things out of this room to create a safe space for me,” Nicholson said.
In nominating Chernin, Nicholson wrote, “I’m not exaggerating- if you guys had a titanium diamond level award, she deserves it!”
Some of the questions asked by the program include: Does this workplace provide written breastfeeding support policy or guidelines? Does this workplace offer flex-time? Does this workplace offer breastfeeding resources? Does this workplace offer a comfortable chair in the room? Does this workplace offer a refrigerator for breastmilk storage? In addition to a dedication lactation space, does this workplace offer overflow room(s) as needed?
Virginia’s Workplace Breastfeeding-Friendly Award program was made possible by a grant from the Virginia Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The experience is one Nicholson said she’ll cherish for the rest of her life - and one she’ll be telling AvaLee about often.
“In many ways this is a gift that’s priceless,” Nicholson said. “These are memories that will go with me much longer than anything else. It’s about finding recognition for something that we find so natural and it’s something we need to hear in this community - something that’s so positive.”