First Things First’s work to promote school readiness for young children throughout Arizona is overseen by a committed group of volunteers who serve on its state Board. Recently, the Board acknowledged and celebrated the contributions of three outgoing members whose collective service to FTF spanned more than a decade.
“(The Board) is responsible for the effective and efficient stewardship of the early childhood resources entrusted to First Things First by Arizona voters. We also share responsibility for ensuring the investments made with those dollars result in improved outcomes for Arizona’s children,” said Chair Gerald Szostak. He noted that Board members include parents, business people, early childhood and health professionals, and leaders in faith and philanthropy.
“The one trait we all share is that we are passionate about early childhood,” he added. “Over the years, we have shared robust discussions, difficult decisions and extraordinary success. We sometimes disagreed, often laughed and always marveled at what we – in partnership with our dedicated regional council members, our talented staff and our deeply committed community partners – have been able to achieve on behalf of young children and their families.”
The three individuals lauded for their contributions to that success were Amelia Flores, who resigned from the Board; and Dr. Sherry Markel and Heidi Quinlan, whose terms have expired. In addition to their recognition during the Board’s January and February meetings, each member also received a written commendation from the Governor’s Office thanking them for their service.
During the Board meetings, fellow members took the opportunity to recognize their colleagues’ individual expertise.
A Voice for Arizona’s Rural and Tribal Communities
Amelia Flores was recently elected as the first Chairwoman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) and subsequently resigned from the Board. During her tenure, she was a wise, steadfast voice for Arizona’s Indian tribes and nations. Flores helped expand FTF’s approach to tribal consultation, growing from one statewide event encompassing all tribes to also include multiple regional events focused on one or two tribes. She also was a strong proponent of early literacy, having served for more than 20 years as the Library and Archive Director for the CRIT Library, a job in which she developed and supervised an early literacy program.
“One of Amelia’s areas of expertise is one that we shared – that of a regional council member. Before joining the Board, she served on the FTF Colorado River Indian Tribes Regional Partnership Council, including serving as chair,” colleague Rev. Dr. Darren Hawkins said. “That insight has been invaluable to the Board, as our unique shared governance model requires a strong and productive partnership with the regions.”
Hawkins said he will miss Flores’ insight in helping him and other Board members learn about the unique assets and challenges of Arizona’s sovereign tribal nations.
“You have been gracious and welcoming and have opened my eyes to so much about what that means for the different nations of people who are here in Arizona,” Hawkins said. “I have relied on you to help me see what I cannot see on my own; to understand that which, for me, seems foreign; and to love and appreciate that which is unique about those nations.”
Fellow member Markel echoed that praise.
“From Day One that you came to the Board, you spoke truth and honesty and with an authentic voice representing your people and representing the children of Arizona,” Markel told Flores. “Your reach was spectacular. Thank you for your wisdom and your time and your care on this Board.”
Flores acknowledged the kind words, but reminded the Board that her service to young children is far from over.
“The passion for children from birth to 5 years and advocating for them is something that you don’t walk away from. And so I will continue to advocate,” Flores said. “I will keep you in my prayers as you make those tough, tough decisions in the future for all of our kids. You know where to find me if you need any help; my door is always open to First Things First.”
A Teacher and Researcher at Heart
A lifelong educator, Dr. Sherry Markel started as a teacher’s assistant in a preschool then moved to teaching positions in K-12 schools and ended with a position as Chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at Northern Arizona University. On the FTF Board, she leveraged that experience to become the voice of teachers that informed many FTF strategies, especially those related to professional development and early learning quality improvement. As a researcher, she was focused on the impact FTF strategies were having in communities statewide.
“I have always been awed by your remarkable understanding of the statistical reports and statements that we Board members get all the time,” Board colleague Marcia Klipsch told Markel, adding that she often wants to echo Markel’s thoughtful comments and questions. “I will miss your analytical ability, your vital contributions to each and every meeting, and your extensive knowledge of the regional councils’ endeavors. Your passion for teaching young children inspires us and reminds us all that we each have a role to play in preparing children for success in school and beyond!”
Markel’s response to that praise was in the form of compliments of her own – for both FTF staff and Board.
“I want to thank the staff for their absolute brilliance coupled with patience,” Markel said. “Organizations reflect their leadership and it is clear to me that across the board, you have very strong, very intelligent, very insightful leadership. It is such a pleasure to work with you.”
Markel said the diversity of the Board has been its greatest strength.
“This whole organization, along with you (fellow Board members), models how it works when people who come from such different backgrounds and on that spectrum of political views and differing opinions come together with a common goal,” Markel said. “Working together – and because of all the different opinions that are respectfully listened to – I think that policy and decisions are crafted in the highest and best manner.”
She echoed Flores’ commitment to continuing to be a champion for young children.
“It is work from the heart and I feel that with every person that I’ve interacted with at First Things First. I don’t lay it down,” Markel said. “Semi-retired is right. If there’s anything I can do … I’m yours.”
A Promoter of Public Policy on Behalf of the Most Vulnerable
Heidi Quinlan was lauded for her focus on an area not often talked about when it comes to early childhood – mental health.
A licensed professional counselor and a licensed independent substance abuse counselor with postgraduate certification in infant/toddler family practice, Quinlan also has specialized training in treating trauma and attachment disruptions in both children and adults.
“Those things all together don’t happen a lot and Heidi’s contributions to this Board from all of those perspectives have been really important,” said Vice Chair Helena Whitney. “I can’t tell the number of times I’ve heard Heidi bring up issues particularly around mental health for young moms and babies.”
“For me, the most important thing that you have contributed is your on-going insistence that mental health is something that we consider when we think about young kids and families,” Whitney told Quinlan.
She added that Quinlan has been instrumental in ensuring that the strategies the Board and regional councils statewide are funding are aligned with the latest developments in other state agencies serving young children, including the Department of Child Safety, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, and the Department of Health Services.
Members also praised Quinlan’s background in policy, expertise she leveraged as chair of the Board’s public policy committee.
“Having worked with Heidi on the Public Policy Committee has been a very good education for me,” member Klipsch said. “I appreciate your guidance. I appreciate your astuteness and stability as we moved through these very complicated issues. I thank you for providing me with the skills to make some of the decisions we have to make. And, I’m going to miss you.”
Markel agreed, citing Quinlan’s diverse range of experience.
“You have willingly and generously shared from a deep well of experience. And, you’ve brought perspectives that some of us have no glimpse of,” Markel said.
Like Markel, Quinlan’s praise was for the staff, the organization, and fellow Board members.
“I have never been part of an organization that is so incredibly well run, so incredibly accountable to the public; and that has such an amazingly and truly incredibly impactful effect on our public,” Quinlan said. I just have never seen anything like it in government.”
All three members were told their shoes would be hard to fill. Thankfully, Markel and Quinlan can continue to serve on the Board until Governor Ducey appoints – and the state Senate confirms – their successors.
Until then, FTF Board members are glad they will continue to benefit from the expertise of at least two of their colleagues. Chair Szostak summed it up for his colleagues.
“When you have individuals of their extraordinary expertise and dedication to the early childhood system, it’s hard to say goodbye.”