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Superheroes for Washington families 2010

Photographs by Will Austin

It’s been tough lately for little kids around here. The worst national economic collapse in 80 years has hit our state hard, putting extra pressure on already-strapped families — and on overtaxed support systems. A tremendous state budget deficit may force cuts in programs that help thousands of vulnerable kids. And while lawmakers struggle to find solutions, thousands of families slip below the poverty line, putting more and more kids at risk.

But amidst all the bad news, there is hope, and it lies with people who won’t let families fail. They are people who toil, innovate and inspire; people who never give up the struggle to make life a little better for children in our state. This month, we honor 10 of these people. We hope you’ll be inspired by their stories. Superheroes, we salute you!

The Mentor

Eric LiuImagination, creativity, innovation — for some, the terms sound like fairy dust, sprinkled on just the lucky few.

Eric Liu disagrees. “Imagination is not an airy, abstract thing,” says the author and former presidential speechwriter. “People of any age or background can rekindle their own imaginations.” How to start? According to Liu, begin by asking the simple question “What if?”

When it comes to education, Liu bristles at the notion that imagination conflicts with mastery of academic basics. “This is a false choice,” says Liu, who’s a member of the Washington State Board of Education. “The purpose of schools isn’t to crank out fact machines. It is to graduate people who can be imaginative; creative problem solvers.”

“Eric is a living example of what he writes about,” says education activist Deborah Rosen, one of many inspired by Liu’s Guiding Lights network, a mentoring advocacy organization. “He brings people together so ideas are not top-down.”

A co-author of the recent book Imagination First, Liu lays out practical ways to fan the creative fire — including rethinking a few of our automatic responses. For instance, when responding to a request, don’t say, “No” or even “Yes, but …” Rather, say, “Yes, and …” It’s amazing how the conversation changes, Liu says. In another exercise, Liu challenges readers to find failure fascinating. “Create permission to nudge what had once been foolish into the realm of the OK,” he writes.

The Madrona father believes Washington’s competitive advantage is imagination, whether in aircraft, software or new experiences in coffee drinking. “We have to stop thinking about org charts and use our creative muscle again.” —Hilary Benson

PERSONAL HERO My mother, Julia Liu. She has wisdom and resilience, and also childlike curiosity and playfulness.

PET PEEVE Sloppy grammar.

BEST RECENT READ Drive by Dan Pink. It’s about why intrinsic motivation matters more than extrinsic.

The Crusader

Joan Cole DuffellJoan Cole Duffell still remembers her first teaching job; she would go home at the end of each day feeling like a failure. The kids were angry, belligerent and uncontrollable. And they were just kindergarteners.

The kindergarteners were in a clinical treatment program because they had been abused most of their young lives. “These kids didn’t have the basic skills they needed to get along with each other. Nobody had taught them another way,” Duffell says.

So Duffell joined Committee for Children as a volunteer coordinator; she was named executive director in 2008.

Today, a focus of the organization is Second Step: A Violence Prevention Curriculum. The program teaches kids social and emotional skills — including empathy — because “research shows you can teach it,” says Duffell.

“She is grounded in the science of this work, which is extremely important,” says Ron Rabin of the Kirlin Foundation, who has worked with Duffell on children’s issues for years. “People want to know what works and why.”

Linda McDaniels, associate director of Parent Trust for Washington Children, says Duffell “truly gets research, but also communicates it in a way that people can understand it and use it. She’s inspirational, but she’s practical.”

Committee for Children’s programs currently reach 7 million children in 21 countries, but Duffell’s true source of satisfaction is something smaller and simpler.

“What I love doing is going out to the schools [and] using our curriculum,” she says. “It is so exciting to see the work we do here come to life in the classroom. That just totally floats my boat.” —Elaine Bowers

PERSONAL HERO My mom. She raised eight amazing kids and is the best social skills teacher I know.

PET PEEVE Virtually every step involved in air travel.

BEST RECENT READ Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation by Jonathan Kozol. On a lighter note, I also loved the Twilight books by Stephenie Meyer … my 12-year-old granddaughter and I read them together.

The Visionary

Jill SellsA chicken in every pot, the old saying goes, but for pediatrician Jill Sells, it’s a book at every check-up.

As director of Reach Out and Read Washington State, Sells champions early learning and the power of books for getting kids prepared for school. Doctors at the state program’s 102 participating locations spend a few minutes of each well-child check-up talking to families about the importance of reading to their kids. Every child younger than 5 is then given a brand-new book to take home.

“It’s more than just early literacy,” says Sells. “You learn language and communication by sharing it with a loving adult; it is critical for social, emotional and other brain development.”

“She is a fundamental reason why early learning has been elevated from a nice idea a few years ago to an established, accomplished major effort in Washington state,” says Benjamin Danielson, director of Seattle’s Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic.

Sells excels in bringing together professionals from the medical, educational and mental health fields and moving them in the same direction.

“She is the smartest person in the room,” says colleague Dr. Michelle Terry. “What’s amazing is that she never uses that; she builds strength in a cooperative way to get people working for the kids.”

Sells, the mother of two (daughter Mari, shown here), says she misses the personal connection of her clinical practice. But her work at the advocacy level is gratifying, too: “This has become what I’m good at, my contribution to helping thousands of families across the state.” —H.B.

PERSONAL HERO My dad, Dr. Jerry Sells. As a developmental pediatrician, he’s been a tireless advocate for children with disabilities and their families across many states and decades. Throughout my life, he has also been the best dad I could hope for, serving as a mentor and role model both personally and professionally. Now our kids (and my husband and I) are blessed to have him as a terrific grandfather.

PET PEEVE Wasted energy. I get frustrated when we go in circles around self-created obstacles, instead of working together creatively to do what’s best for kids and families.

BEST RECENT READ Have a Little Faith by Mitch Albom.

The Healer

Kathryn Barnard“She is a force of nature,” says Dr. Ben Danielson, medical director of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic in Seattle. “She has done what I don’t think anyone else could do.” He’s talking about Dr. Kathryn Barnard, founder of the Center on Infant Mental Health and Development at the University of Washington (UW). Opened in 2001, the center is a product of Barnard’s passion for meeting the needs of the youngest and most vulnerable of children. It’s also one of the only places in the country that provides specialized training in infant mental health.

The center is just the latest in Barnard’s accomplishments in the field of infant development, which started with her groundbreaking research in parent-child interaction and how it affects a child’s later physical, psychological and emotional health. Along the way, she has designed training programs for public health nurses who work with families of infants at high risk; created measurements for parent-child interactions, which are now used around the world; and helped design the national Early Head Start program for newborns to 3-year-olds. But to Danielson, Barnard’s most significant achievement is the inspiration and wisdom she brings to others who work for the mental health needs of infants, a field once virtually ignored in our society. —Kathryn Russell Selk

PERSONAL HERO Dr. Mary Neal, who was the first nurse researcher to study how to provide stimulation for prematurely born children; and Dr. Helen Bee, my mentor in my doctoral program at the UW.

PET PEEVE People who resist change, because if you don’t try new things, you can’t find new ways of resolving issues.

BEST RECENT READ The Mindful Brain by Dr. Dan Siegel, and Barack Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope.

The Advocate

Paola Maranan“Paola is a tireless advocate for kids,” says Frank Chopp, speaker of the Washington House of Representatives. “As executive director of the Children’s Alliance, Paola’s passion, inspiration and dedication make the Children’s Alliance a leading voice in Olympia.”

Maranan’s long involvement with the Children’s Alliance began in 1993, when she served as public policy director, coordinating the organization’s work to look at and respond specifically to the needs of children and families of color. But Maranan’s dedication to children in our state goes back farther than that: She has worked for the Washington State Family Policy Council, the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs and United Way of King County, and she currently serves as vice chair of the Member Leadership Council for VOICES for America’s Children. Maranan holds a degree from Harvard, and she and her partner, Paul, have a teenage daughter.

“Because of partners like Paola, we have Apple Health for Kids — the best healthcare coverage for children in the nation!” says Chopp. “In my book, Paola is absolutely a Superhero for Washington’s kids.” —Kathleen F. Miller

PERSONAL HERO U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, one of the architects of the series of legal challenges that eventually led to Brown v. Board of Education and the end of “separate but equal.”

PET PEEVE Apathy and inaction annoy me to my core.

BEST RECENT READ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis.

The Innovator

Jim Theofelis and Paola MarananHis mission is simple: Build a world-class foster care system. As founder and executive director of The Mockingbird Society, Jim Theofelis is working to do just that. Since its creation in 2001, The Mockingbird Society has developed nationally recognized programs, including The Mockingbird Network, to change policy and create sustainable reform in foster care; and The Mockingbird Family Model, to improve foster care practices.

“Is there anyone more genuine and ingenuous at the same time in the world of child welfare than Jim Theofelis?” asks 2009 Superhero and special-needs advocate Anne Lokey. “From time to time, while in the trenches of foster care, I would talk with Jim about my challenge du jour. He would always offer insight, infectious enthusiasm and a deep well of hope. He has an unparalleled dedication and passion.”

Jim pioneered the concept of a hub home, which operates as the primary support for a “constellation” of foster homes. The Mockingbird Family Model is now nationally recognized as a leading approach to successfully increasing stability and improving outcomes for foster children, Lokey says. “Jim is the best friend of Washington state’s most vulnerable citizens, our kids in foster care.” —K.F.M.

PERSONAL HERO Frederick Douglass. He was able to inspire those in power to do the impossible.

PET PEEVE Tokenism.

BEST RECENT READ The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Favorite line: “When you want something, all the world conspires to help you achieve it.”

Karina Tupou

Karina Tupou and Regina HollingsheadAs a student at Chinook Middle School in White Center, Karina Tupou ( left) was suspended dozens of times for acting out, such as talking back to teachers, or stealing sodas from the teachers’ lounge.

Then one day, it hit her: She wanted to do something with her life. She realized she had potential, and support from her family and friends. That was the beginning of Tupou’s transformation from “bad” girl to leader.

Now in her second year as a City Year AmeriCorps member, Tupou shows suspended students a better way, as part of the Getting Youth Beyond Barriers in Schools (GYBBIS) program at Seattle’s Aki Kurose Middle School. She also leads corps members her own age and older who work in the program, which provides an alternative to suspension and teaches kids decision-making skills and responsibility.

“Their problems usually stem from something deeper than what happened in school that day,” says Tupou. “We try to find out what’s really bothering them and how to better deal with that.”

How do middle school students respond to Tupou?

“When Karina walks into a room, the entire atmosphere brightens up,” says Teresa Thomas, another City Year team member. “She’s personable, funny, not egotistical, and she makes connections easily with the people around her.” —Heather Larson

PERSONAL HERO My mom and dad, who have always worked very hard.

PET PEEVE People who lie.

BEST RECENT READ Twilight by Stephenie Meyer.

The Teacher

Regina Hollingshead (above, right) goes out of her way to make sure that her students at Cleveland High School engage with the subject matter. This is why she plans her lessons around what really interests kids — teaching the history of the civil rights movement through music, or using propaganda posters to bring the history of World War II to life. Whatever it is, she finds a way to connect with kids in a unique and interesting fashion. Hollingshead got her teaching degree from Valparaiso University in Indiana, and she’s set to start her career — but not before spending a year as a volunteer teacher for AmeriCorps. Through Seattle’s City Year program, Hollingshead is reaching out to help kids who are at high risk of dropping out of school.

“Like Jane Adams, Regina is passionate about helping those who don’t have the voice to help themselves,” says Megan Durham, a fellow City Year team member. “She’s active in Amnesty International and undertakes letter writing campaigns to oppressive government regimes throughout the world.”

“Regina Hollingshead is the teacher whom you want your children to have,” says City Year executive director Simon Amiel. “As a teacher, Regina is excellent. As a person, she is exemplary.” —H.L.

PERSONAL HERO Jane Adams, a pioneer in social work, and Alan Bloom, my college adviser.

PET PEEVE People who aren’t open and honest.

BEST RECENT READ You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn.

The Activist

Liz BullardWhile working as a speech-language pathologist, Liz Bullard noticed that children with developmental delays often spent most of their days indoors — in therapy, tutoring, doctors’ offices and hospitals. And when there was a free moment, their neighborhood parks were often not able to accommodate them. So in 2002, the mother of three founded the nonprofit Seattle Children’s PlayGarden to help give kids with special needs a safe place to play outside. This spring, a new $1.8 million facility will be located at Seattle’s Colman Playfield — the first program of its kind in the nation to be located in a public park.

Rick Jones is a member of the PlayGarden board. “My daughters Annie and Lilly love summer camp at the PlayGarden, because they can roam and play freely without regard to Annie’s wheelchair,” he says. “Liz is a remarkable person, brimming with creativity, compassion and competence. She has a tremendously strong vision and the tools to make it come alive. The PlayGarden is a direct extension of her and exists because she has willed it into existence. It is an amazing gift to the families of Seattle!” —K.F.M.

PERSONAL HERO My mom, who served her family of 11 a delicious dinner with two vegetables and a salad every night of the week; lover of children, books and gardening.

PET PEEVE Weak coffee.

BEST RECENT READ A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore.

The Lawmaker

Eric PettigrewEric Pettigrew got lucky as a teenager in the tough neighborhoods of south-central Los Angeles: His single mom sent him to live with his grandparents outside the city. Pettigrew’s success grew from there, leading him to a master’s degree from the University of Washington and a career at Safeco.

When asked to run for the state Legislature, Pettigrew said he wasn’t interested. He was told, “This isn’t about you. This is about you giving something back to the community that has given you so much.”

Now in his eighth legislative session, much of Pettigrew’s “giving back” has been focused on the needs of children. “We give speeches and use the needs of kids in our campaigns,” he says. “When it comes to really making something happen, we, as a state, have got to do a better job.”

Pettigrew has focused on helping caregivers get the resources they need and providing an “ends meet” program to help buy necessities.

“He has very quickly built a reputation in the Legislature for really working effectively and authentically across the aisle,” says early childhood policy consultant Kristin Wiggins.

Now focused on collective bargaining rights for childcare workers and directors, Pettigrew says quality care in a child’s early years is critical. “We put millions into the state prison system. Why can’t we make the same commitment to kids?

“I really, truly believe that every single child should have the opportunity to dream and be the very best they can be,” he says. “It’s our job to provide that opportunity.” —E.B.

PERSONAL HERO Jackie Robinson.

PET PEEVE Toothpaste left in the sink.

BEST RECENT READ The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara.


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