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Kim Belshé, Champion for Children: “A Matter of Fairness”

Editor’s Note: With proposals emerging from Washington, D.C. threatening First 5 LA’s mission, values and goals that put child opportunity and well-being at the center, First 5 LA’s new strategic direction and role as an advocate for policy and systems change are more important than ever. As we steer the First 5 LA ship in this direction, the following story about the person at our helm – Executive Director Kim Belshé – reveals what drives her to navigate the waters ahead towards new ports of partnership, policy and systems change to ensure the well-being of all children in Los Angeles County.

Back in the summer of ’72, a young Kim Belshé showed early in her life that when it comes to helping others, she just doesn’t know the meaning of “quit”.

Kim and five other 12-year-old Marin County girls had decided they wanted to raise funds for Sacramento Delta flood victims. So they set a lofty goal to break the world hopscotch record –more than 31 hours straight – to earn pledges ranging from a penny to a dollar an hour.

At 7:21 a.m. on a Saturday morning in a community college parking lot, Kim and friends began their Italian hopscotch marathon, which includes hopping on one leg and picking up rocks. With visitors playing guitar, they downed candy and high protein food for energy and took one hour breaks in shifts, keeping the game going at all times. They played through the night, overcoming aching backs, weary legs and lack of sleep. Despite their exhaustion, the event organizer told the local paper that “they never, ever, wanted to quit.”

“As a kid, I always kept an eye out for the little guy.” -Kim Belshé

And when Kim and friends finally stopped at 3:31 on Sunday afternoon, they had exceeded the old hopscotch record by 2 hours and raised $431 for the flood victims.

Today, Kim is humble when reflecting upon the marathon experience. Though it did not garner a citation in the Guinness Book of World Records, it has earned a reminiscent smile. It was, Kim’s smile tells you, simply the right thing to do: help others.

“As a kid, I always kept an eye out for the little guy,” said Kim, who has been First 5 LA’s Executive Director since December, 2012. “I gained a sense of fairness from my early experiences.”

This included a split between her parents and seeing her mother ostracized by her circle of friends. Then, not long afterward, Kim experienced her own sudden rejection in 6th grade by former friends.

“I went from being one of the most popular kids in class to guys calling me a ‘dog’ and the ‘mean girls’ calling me ‘ugly’ and wanting nothing to do with me,” Kim recalled.

But like the Argent song of the 70’s, “Hold Your Head Up”, Kim did not let the taunts and stares slow her down.    

“I didn’t cower in a corner and I didn’t accept the bullying bull#%*%,” she recalled.

Instead, Kim focused on helping others, running for student body office and winning. She eventually became student body vice president of her junior high school.  

“The bullying had a profound influence on me because I knew what it’s like to be the person being picked on,” she recalled. “I’ve been driven by a sense of fairness throughout my life, which I think reflects my early experiences as a child.”

One of Kim’s inspirations was her first Champion for Children: her mother, Corinne Lansill, who went from a stay at home mom to a working mom. When she wasn’t working her job at a small, alternative college, her mother was volunteering with children’s theater and as a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) for kids in foster care.

“I’ve been driven by a sense of fairness throughout my life, which I think reflects my early experiences as a child.” -Kim Belshé

“I look to my mother as a champion for her fierce protection of her own children during difficult times and for her contributions on behalf of children less fortunate than ourselves,” Kim said. “My mom helped me understand at a young age that all children should have the same opportunities in education, health and safety.”

A PASSION FOR POLICY

Armed with her mother’s inspiration, a drive to help others through public service and a keen intellect, Kim began to craft her own narrative beyond the Bay Area, beginning with her education. She earned a bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard College and was considering law school when her early work experience in Washington, D.C. on Capitol Hill shifted her focus to public policy.

“I got bitten by the public policy bug,” Kim said. “I was drawn to the opportunity to be of service to a broader public good.”

Another transformative moment came after her studies of German in West Berlin at the Goethe Institute during the winter of 1985: “I had gone to Germany thinking I’d return to study international affairs. I came back from the experience saying, ‘You know, we have enough social and economic challenges here at home where I’d like to help make a difference.’”

After earning a master’s degree from Princeton University, Kim tackled these troubles in a plethora of early career roles, including California’s AIDS education campaign, the nation’s first public awareness effort related to HIV/AIDS. She went on to hold a number of leadership positions in state government, including deputy secretary of the Health and Welfare Agency and director of the Department of Health Services under Governor Pete Wilson. From 2003-2011, she served as Secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency in the Administration of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“I was drawn to the opportunity to be of service to a broader public good.” -Kim Belshé

“My career path reflects a deep and abiding commitment to public service, a focus on underserved communities and a desire to help address persistent gaps in social, educational and economic opportunity in my home state of California,” Kim explained.

In between Kim’s service in state government, she served in leadership positions in California philanthropy, including the James Irvine Foundation. 

“I was drawn to philanthropy as an extension of my commitment to public service and to California,” she said. “Working for the James Irvine Foundation provided an amazing opportunity to make a difference in California’s diverse communities with private rather than public dollars.”

Beyond her “day jobs”, Kim has advanced this commitment to public service via her roles on public boards.  In 1999, she joined the founding State First 5 Commission. In 2011, she was appointed to the founding board of the state's Health Benefit Exchange, Covered California.

“Kim Belshé is a highly regarded expert on health care delivery,” said Sandra Gutierrez, National Director of Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors, who worked alongside Kim on the State First 5 Commission. “She steered our state’s health department through some of its toughest challenges and greatest accomplishments. Through her work on implementation of the Affordable Care Act in California, she led efforts to identify and bring forth solutions that improve access and quality of care for individuals and families.”

It was at the State First 5 Commission where Kim met her second champion for children, Rob Reiner.

“I think Rob Reiner is a pretty amazing champion for kids,” Kim said of the actor/director who spearheaded Proposition 10, the tobacco-tax initiative approved by voters in 1998 that funds county commissions throughout the state like First 5 LA to promote better outcomes for young children and their families. “He took a personal issue and made it a macro issue, researching child brain science, development, parent-child bonding and then engaging policymakers to spread his vision for greater investment in our youngest children. He was a model for leadership focused on broad policy change to ensure the well-being of all children.”

In regards to her own leadership at First 5 LA, Kim said “I like to think of myself as part of a team of champions for children.” Members of the First 5 LA team, which is comprised of more doctorates than a small town college, are often fondly referred to by Kim as “super smarty-pants.”

“I like to think of myself as part of a team of champions for children.” -Kim Belshé

During her first four years at the helm, Kim has taken this team approach to new heights at First 5 LA through a practice of “listening, learning and leading”. She has listened to staff, parents and service providers; learned from them as well as early childhood experts, advocates, foundations and government officials; and led the First 5 LA team to a key shift in focus: “from pursuing change at the micro, individual level,” she explained, “to change at the macro, policy and systems change level.”

SHIFTING FOCUS

In the 15 years since the passage of Proposition 10, tobacco tax revenues (First 5 LA’s primary source of income) had decreased 50 percent. If First 5 LA continued to conduct “business as usual” and focus the majority of its spending on individual direct services, it would only be able to help a relatively small number of families and children for a limited time. Working this way is like addressing the problem leaf by leaf instead of curing it at the root. First 5 LA needed a new way to focus its work in order to make the greatest impact on the children of L.A. County and their families.

The solution came in the form of the 2015-2020 Strategic Plan, which prioritized those strategic activities with the potential to impact the broadest range of children prenatal to age 5 across four interlinked focus areas – families, communities, early care and education, and health care delivery systems. The overall result sought, or “guiding north star”, was for all children in L.A. County to enter kindergarten ready to succeed in school and life.

But First 5 LA could not do this work alone. Under the new plan, the agency launched a new strategic direction anchored in partnership and focused on policy and systems change, which provides the opportunity to affect outcomes for the greatest number of young children. With guidance and support from First 5 LA’s Board of Commissioners, the new, five-year Strategic Plan took effect in the summer of 2015. 

In the time since, Kim has led a number of major organizational milestones to align First 5 LA’s structure and staffing to its new strategic plan, including:

  • An assessment of First 5 LA’s organizational strengths and challenges to ensure its capabilities, functions and roles support new ways of work through partnership, policy and advocacy
  • Formation of a new five-member Executive Team to support First 5 LA’s strategic direction
  • A new organizational structure that aligns staff to the functions needed to effectively execute the new Strategic Plan. While some roles are new to the organization, some changed and some clarified – all will better enable the agency to advance its goals and focus on those policies and systems that will yield the greatest benefits for children in L.A. County.

“We’re evolving from an agency that was micro focused on individual services to a macro focus on partnerships, policies and systems that broadly affect all young children and their families in L.A. County,” Kim said.

“This is where partnership is so important,” she added. “We have the opportunity to dedicate our smarts and financial resources in collaboration with other partners to improve the health, safety and school readiness of all kids. The good news is that First 5 LA is not alone in this effort.”

“It’s exciting to see the partnerships First 5 LA is forging with county agencies, Best Start, parents, community providers and other funders,” Kim said. “I’m so proud of First 5 LA’s growth and evolution in furtherance of its mission.” Indeed, the power of strategic partnerships, collaborations and coalitions has grown rapidly at First 5 LA in the time since the new Strategic Plan kicked off. 

“Our work on behalf of young children and their families has never been more important,” -Kim Belshé

Asked if there has been a personal encounter that symbolizes the importance of the work being done by First 5 LA, Kim pointed to special moments with two of First 5 LA’s signature investments: Welcome Baby and Best Start Communities. 

At Citrus Valley Medical Center - Queen of the Valley Campus in West Covina not long ago, Kim and First 5 LA Commissioner Marlene Zepeda met a new mother who had enrolled in Welcome Baby, First 5 LA’s voluntary home visiting program that provides L.A. County pregnant women and new moms with information, support and a trusted partner to help them through the journey of pregnancy and early parenthood.

“This mom was so excited about being able to learn the latest on parent-child bonding and to access the support to be the best mom she can be,” Kim recalled.

At a meeting of the East Los Angeles Best Start Community Partnership – which provides skills building and leadership training to create supportive communities where children and families can thrive – Kim learned about the exciting strides being made by parents, caretakers, and other community members in the partnership. This included identifying community priorities through a Community-Based Research Project (CBAR), learning to connect to local resources, and taking empowerment trainings to make their voices heard in the context of the county’s planning process for parks and open space.

In particular, Kim recalled Maria Leon, a grandmother of two young children and member of the leadership group.

“She spoke with such passion,” Kim said. “She wasn’t saying, ‘We need you to find us more services.’ She and other grandparents and parents understood where the power lies: in their voice, in speaking to their elected officials and advocating for change. The work that they are undertaking is central to how we are helping a community’s ability to foster safe, healthy and engaged neighborhoods that strengthen families and create better outcomes for kids.”

When asked to provide a handful of words that would describe her work at First 5 LA at this point in time, Kim’s answer revealed a touch of her true self: getting straight to the point, with an adoration of alliteration: “Potential. Partnership. Policy. Progress.”

Yet Kim will be the first one to say there is much more still to do at First 5 LA, especially now.

“Our work on behalf of young children and their families has never been more important,” Kim said. “The proposals emanating from Washington, D.C. are a threat to our mission, values and goals that put child opportunity and well-being at the center. I have great confidence in and am grateful to be part of an organization that has the ‘will and skill’ – among Board and staff alike – to stay true to what we believe in, use our voice, engage with others and advocate for the policy and systems changes that ensure all children in L.A. County have equitable opportunities to reach their full potential. It's a matter of fairness.” 

Those who have worked with her know that Kim is the one to get it done.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” said Gutierrez, “creating large scale impact is difficult, often daunting. Kim is clear and she is visionary. She is a true champion for children that takes on systemic approaches to address the ever complex large scale problems of our time.”

Kim is clear and she is visionary. -Sandra Gutierrez

As some know, Kim’s love of quotes is second only to her affection for the San Francisco Giants. It was only fitting, then, that Gutierrez used the following quote from Cesar Chavez to sum up Kim’s commitment and life’s work:

“We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community . . . Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.” – Cesar Chavez

Did You Know?  Games and sports have been an integral part of Kim’s life since she was young – one of her earliest memories was being pushed down a rare snow-covered San Francisco hill in a big roasting pan as a child by her mom. She also played tennis and golf with her dad and attended home games of her beloved San Francisco Giants with her grandfather. (She is a Bay area version of Vin Scully: she can name the lineup of the ’71 playoff team off the top of her head and has a number of their cards, to boot.)

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