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Q&A with new FTF CEO Marilee Dal Pra

Marilee Dal Pra First Things First CEO

Marilee Dal Pra joined First Things First as chief executive officer on December 18. She previously served as vice president for programs at Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, where she directed philanthropic investments in support of children and families, and as the director for the Governor’s Division for Children. (Read her bio.) We caught up with Marilee after her first three weeks on the job.

How’s it going so far?

These past few weeks have been exhilarating. They’ve really reinforced what I already knew about First Things First: that our Board, regional councils and staff are highly dedicated and have an unwavering commitment to Arizona’s youngest children and their families. And that in collaboration with our grant partners and engaged citizens throughout Arizona, we are making a huge impact in the health and learning of thousands of children. I could not be more impressed, and I’m so grateful for the warm welcome.

What brought you to First Things First?

Throughout my career serving children and families, several experiences have reinforced the need for prevention and intervention to start much earlier. For example, at Piper Trust, we did some research which showed that, for many struggling students, reading remediation in second or third grade was too late. I asked the researchers on that project where our foundation should be investing, and the definitive answer from each one was, ‘Early childhood. Invest in birth to 5. Prepare those children to enter kindergarten ready. That’s where you’ll make the biggest impact.’ When I worked for the Governor’s Division for Children (under Jane Dee Hull), I had some responsibility for the welfare of children, including those who had not been properly cared for. After seeing some of the long-term consequences of neglect, it’s hard to not recognize the importance of investing early and strengthening families. I truly believe that every parent wants what’s best for their child, and armed with the proper resources, knowledge and supports, every parent can be their child’s first and best teacher.

That’s why I’m so happy and proud to join First Things First. It’s an incredible opportunity to be on the public side of service to the young children and families of Arizona.

“…everyone in Arizona should see a way they can connect with First Things First to make a contribution on behalf of children and families…”

You’ve been involved with First Things First from the beginning, right?

That’s right, I’ve worked with First Things First in a variety of ways over the years, but two in particular stand out. When First Things First started, I was a member of a regional council in central Phoenix. In those early days, there was huge excitement and optimism about having dedicated resources to build strong families and enhance school readiness. It’s wonderful to see that passion and commitment continues in our regional councils today.

I also served on the original Arizona Early Childhood Task Force in 2010, and again when it re-convened last year. The task forces really helped FTF to zero in on specific areas of focus. Early on, there was a mentality among some that, ‘Well, we’ve got First Things First now. We’ve got (early childhood) covered.’ But FTF dollars can’t possibly cover everything that’s important related to early childhood health and learning. The task force conversations helped define FTF’s role, and helped other partners identify their roles, in the broader early childhood system. They’ve led to stronger alliances and more synergy among state agencies and community partners that have varying degrees of responsibility around families with young children.

What’s your perspective on the state of early childhood in Arizona?

The work of FTF gives us the ability to look statewide and also zero in on specific regions to understand how children and families are faring. There’s still great need, but we’re making tremendous gains. Quality First is a prime example of how First Things First is making a real difference in Arizona by improving the quality of child care and preschool statewide.

But our state still has a long way to go. Overall, Arizona still lags behind other states on several indicators of child well-bring. We need to do better. We have to constantly examine how we can improve as an organization, and as a state, in providing the resources that will make a difference for young kids and ensure they’ll start kindergarten ready to succeed. And that will help our state to be a stronger economic engine and an even better place to live. So, there’s good news, but still much to be done.

With that in mind, how do you see the work of FTF growing in the new year?

We can find ways to accelerate progress and amplify our reach. To stretch beyond what’s already being done, both statewide and community by community. We have so many dedicated partners who have developed an incredible amount of expertise. Always working in collaboration, we can learn from each other to get better, smarter, more effective and efficient.

And moving beyond our existing partners, everyone in Arizona should see a way they can connect with First Things First to make a contribution on behalf of children and families, whether that be through their work, wisdom or wealth. It could be serving on a regional council, volunteering in a community program, expanding resources or partnering with FTF.

Thanks very much and, once again, welcome!

Thank you! I’m excited to be here and look forward to the work we can all do together on behalf of Arizona’s youngest children.

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