Growing up as one of 13 children in Chicago, Teresa Nuno learned early in life the value of her immigrant parents’ efforts to create a better life in this country. Even for other kids in the neighborhood.
“She had a ‘can do’ attitude and was always one of the go to people in the neighborhood,” Nuno recalled of her mother, Teresa, who was a Head Start volunteer and an interpreter for many immigrant families on top of her family duties. “She became ‘mom’ to a number of neighborhood kids. They would come into our home and call her ‘mom’.”
If First 5 LA has a leader and mother figure that has nurtured its growth since the agency’s infancy, it’s Nuno. From the staff’s first office in a downtown building basement 16 years ago, Nuno has worked to develop its programs, strategies, staff and partnerships so that today, First 5 LA has matured into one of the largest, most impactful nonprofit child advocacy agencies in Los Angeles County.
“So much of my work at First 5 LA and my career touches my life growing up” -Teresa Nuno
The roots of Nuno’s work stem from that Chicago home – an apartment, actually – where her mother gave Nuno and her siblings a sense of strength and love and taught them to believe in themselves. Her father, Ramon – a machinist who made ends meet repairing and selling jewelry and cars – was also invested in his community, starting a weekend soccer league that brought immigrant families from all over the globe together for a fun day in the park.
Other times, growing up was not as much fun. Food could be in short supply, especially when Nuno’s father would get laid off. To feed her family, her mother would find ways to create healthy family meals on a tight budget for all to share. Meat was a premium. Mom would come up with creative ways to cook potatoes for what seemed like long stretches.
“So much of my work at First 5 LA and my career touches my life growing up,” Nuno said. “I come from similar communities and social conditions of the families we serve. I was fortunate to go to college and earn a Master’s Degree in Education with a specialization in Educational Psychology from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.”
On Friday, August 19, Nuno will spend her last day at First 5 LA. After 16 years with the agency, she is leaving to explore many emerging opportunities and life options at this stage in her life and career. Nuno has served most recently as First 5 LA’s Chief of Programs and Planning. Over the years, she has also served as Director of Community Investments, the Director of Planning, Development and Policy, and – her first role – the Director of Programs and Planning.
During her tenure, Nuno has led strategic planning, funding recommendations, development and implementation of a multitude of First 5 LA’s key programs and initiatives, including (but not limited to) Partnerships for Families, School Readiness Initiative, Universal Preschool (LAUP), Healthy Births Initiative, Healthy Kids Initiative and Prenatal to 3, which later became Best Start Communities.
Nuno had been improving the lives of others long before coming to First LA. Prior to her arrival in 2000, she was Director of Programs and Community Development at the UCLA School of Public Health, Technical Assistance Group. Her experience in direct services and executive management ranges from working as a practitioner in mental health, to a health policy advisor and state level executive position in early childhood development, to a consultant on social policies and service delivery systems issues.
When coming on board as First 5 LA’s first Director of Programs and Planning, Nuno actually found herself moving a few steps down to take her new role. Literally.
“Our first home was in the basement of Hahn Hall, right next door to the cafeteria. The first set of directors shared a conference table with computers side by side, which made personal calls interesting,” Nuno recalled with a laugh.
From those humble beginnings, Nuno and her fellow directors were immediately tasked with getting the first set of grants out the door. At one point, she worked 38 days straight.
“There was a sense of excitement, a sense of amazement and possibility all mixed into one. We were like, ‘Oh my gosh! I can’t believe we’ve been chosen to be part of this organization we’re going to help build.”
And build they did.
“We are thankful for the many ways Teresa has helped grow and shape our organization from a concept into the many programs that have benefitted thousands of children 0 to 5 in L.A. County,” said First 5 LA Executive Director Kim Belshé. “The organization would not be what it is today without her focus on our mission, extensive program knowledge and contributions, institutional memory, and strong and respectful internal and external relationships.”
Together with her colleagues, Nuno collected the raw materials for successful construction of a new agency: a talented staff, some which would go on to become leaders in their own right at First 5 LA. She helped design the blueprints for lofty programs, which were built on the foundation of evidence-based practices and community input. She forged new relationships with a plethora of public and private partners to leverage resources and expand the agency’s outcomes. Today, First 5 LA has moved from a basement to a three story building downtown that may not stand as tall as the surrounding skyscrapers, but stands for a higher principal: to ensure that the youngest children in L.A. County get the best start in life.
And while she is one of the longest-serving staffers at First 5 LA, Nuno is short on taking credit for the agency’s accomplishments.
“I have a very deep sense of satisfaction, not accomplishment,” she said. “I have been given the professional opportunity to be part of something as amazing as First 5 LA. In my experience, the evolution of First 5 LA from its beginning to now captures the vision for the promise and responsibility of stewardship of all of the monies that could impact so many lives. Yet there is also the recognition that those dollars are not limitless. There is still the question of how to create sustainable policy and systems change so that positive outcomes for children and families live on.”
“There is still the question of how to create sustainable policy and systems change so that positive outcomes for children and families live on” -Teresa Nuno
Asked what initiatives she is most proud of, Nuno responded as one might expect – like a mother.
“It’s like asking, ‘Which child do you like best?’” she laughed.
Then she paused for reflection. After a moment, she said: “One that touched many children is the Healthy Kids Initiative. I believe we were able to bridge that gap of children without insurance in the county. Many years later, as a consequence, now they are covered by the Affordable Care Act.”
Established in 2003, the First 5 LA Healthy Kids Initiative provided access to low- or no-cost health insurance for children ages 0 to 5 in Los Angeles County who were not eligible for Medi-Cal or Healthy Families. First 5 LA provided funds to LA Care Health Plan to administer Healthy Kids insurance, a comprehensive benefits package that includes medical, mental health, dental and vision care. Additionally, First 5 LA funded the L.A. County Department of Public Health’s management of outreach, enrollment, and retention of coverage for the 0 to 5 population. Through the 13-year, $100 million First 5 LA investment that ends this December, Healthy Kids will have covered tens of thousands of children in the county.
Nuno also pointed with satisfaction to First 5 LA’s investment in the 50 Parks Initiative. Launched by the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, the goal was to create small, neighborhood parks – often called “pocket parks” – in densely populated communities that lack sufficient open space and recreational services. Through a $1,050,000 grant, First 5 LA funded three parks in the initiative: 97th Street Park and 105th Street Park in Los Angeles and Kagel Canyon in Pacoima.
“I got to see the kids enjoy the benefit of seeing a pocket park in their neighborhood,” she said. “They were so well designed for children. It made me reminisce about the types of neighborhoods I grew up in Chicago. Some didn’t have parks, so we would play softball and tag in unsafe places like empty lots, where we would cut our feet in the weeds running after the ball. With these pocket parks we can say, ‘Wow, we made a difference.’ ”
“Teresa is absolutely patient zero of our team spirit” -Barbara DuBransky
Nuno has also made a difference in the lives and work of many other First 5 LA leaders, staff, and Commissioners. Colleagues often cite her infectious smile, her spunk and her savvy.
First 5 LA Director of Program Development Barbara Andrade DuBransky, whose first project with Nuno was the first home visiting investment back in 2000, credited Nuno’s “deep understanding of how the work at a policy, community and organizational level actually impacts families”, which helps staff “make more effective decisions at those strategic levels.”
And while Nuno was also known for bringing her staffers gifts from her vacations overseas, her colleagues say it’s her “can do” spirit – like that of her mother – that is the greatest gift she has bestowed upon the agency.
“Teresa is absolutely patient zero of our team spirit,” DuBransky said.
Best Start Communities Director Rafael González echoed that sentiment.
“The spirit of Best Start now and in the future is a reflection of Teresa’s life experiences and the values that come from working side-by-side with families and communities committed to bringing about social change,” González said. “More than just an institution, Teresa is a leader who speaks from the heart and that in itself has left a significant mark on me and many others connected to First 5 LA.”
“It is a given both externally and internally that Teresa has mentored a huge number of colleagues and staff that have become vital contributors to the social work arena,” said First 5 LA Commissioner Nancy Au.
“It is a given both externally and internally that Teresa has mentored a huge number of colleagues and staff that have become vital contributors to the social work arena” -Nancy Au
If there is one quality that underpins Nuno’s thoughts and actions, Au said, it is her authentic caring.
“She resonated with the day-to-day struggles many low-income families have in providing for their families, but also celebrated and recognized the strength-based cultures, traditions and resiliency many brought with them when they immigrated to this country,” Au said.
Asked for three words that best describe Nuno, Commissioner Deanne Tilton Durfee listed “genuine”, “committed” and “effective”. Moreover, she said, “Teresa encouraged everyone who knew or worked with her to become the best they could be on behalf of young children, their families and communities.”
Throughout L.A. County, Nuno has also played a role within the broader field of early childhood development. Most recently, she has served as Vice President of the LA Partnership for Early Childhood Investment, supporting the Partnership’s efforts to increase its membership and sharpen its strategic focus. Nuno has also represented First 5 LA in ensuring necessary representation for our youngest children within the LA Compact, a “cradle to career” initiative of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
Asked about the greatest impact Nuno has made in the lives of young children in L.A. County, David Rattray, Executive Vice President of Education Workforce Development of LA Chamber of Commerce and President of UNITE LA, put it simply.
“So many of us try to bring our mind to the issues,” Rattray said. “She does that, too. She also brings real heart in a special way. As a representative of First 5 LA, it engenders tremendous connection and commitment to the mission of First 5 LA when the ambassador is someone like Teresa.”
Parker Blackman, Executive Director of the LA Partnership for Early Childhood Investment, added: “You have no doubt of every single day of those 16 years at First 5 LA, that she had those most vulnerable children in mind. I think it’s the cumulative effect of that mindset and hard work that is Teresa’s greatest legacy.”
For Nuno, one of the greatest rewards of her tenure has been helping to create such partnerships – both public and private – that are critical to First 5 LA’s continued mission. “To better serve the communities, partnership is key,” she said. “First 5 LA cannot do it alone.”
“You have no doubt of every single day of those 16 years at First 5 LA, that she had those most vulnerable children in mind” -Parker Blackman
Asked what she will miss most about working at First 5 LA, Nuno said, “I know it sounds cliché, but it’s the staff, my colleagues and the many partners who share this mission and worked side by side with us on this journey.”
For in the end, Nuno said, it’s all about coming together to do good for young children and their families.
“We don’t come to work to make lots of money, but we’re richer for it,” she said. “We’re artists who make change for the better.”