A Champion For Children

It seems like a lifetime ago, and in many respects it was.  I was a tender, 25-year-old administrator of a crisis nursery in York County. On so many levels, I was in over my head. I knew little about county government, much less state or federal.  Truth be known, I am not sure I had ever been to Harrisburg.  But I was trying to stabilize a small nonprofit, develop programs that helped families, and  launch my career.  What I did possess was lots of energy and undying determination.  I courted away from the employment of a major health corporation a dynamic, young woman who was one of the few known registered art therapists in the area.  Common sense told me that young children who had been sexually abused, especially those who were pre-verbal, needed a different type of therapy and I felt in my gut that this woman could hold the key to much healing.

We launched an art therapy program to complement respite care, case management services, and a comprehensive parent education and support program, but I needed funding and fast. In the early 1990’s, most of us were just learning about a form of Medicaid funding called Early & Periodic Screening, Diagnostic and Treatment, or EPSDT.  I read and learned voraciously about this funding and I spent hours completing an application. To my dismay and anger, it was denied.  For reasons I can no longer recall, someone in a position of authority determined this funding stream was not applicable for art therapy.  I turned for funding assistance to a state senator and state representative – my first-ever visit to legislative offices. These legislators agreed to work together to bring a positive resolution to my funding crisis, and before I knew it, I was given a date and time to meet with staff from the then-PA Department of Public Welfare.

I remember the meeting day as if it were yesterday.  I wore a blue suit, held a briefcase ( yes, women used them back then) that contained a few notes jotted on a legal pad that summarized key funding points, steps I had taken, the answers given, and, of course, my argument for why it should be applicable.  With quarters in hand for the parking meter, (Don’t we all miss those days when one quarter got us through a meeting in Harrisburg!) I found my way to Labor and Industry and the designated conference room filled with more than a dozen people – none of whom I knew, except for the senator. At the appropriate time, all eyes looked toward the entrance door and in walked a woman named Karen Snider, Secretary of Public Welfare.  I nearly fainted.  It never occurred to me to ask who would be participating in the meeting and I could not understand why so many people were needed for such a small issue.  Truth be known, I still struggle to understand.

Secretary Snider sat down, introductions were quickly given, and then she looked at me and said, “Angela, will you please review the circumstances that bring us here today?”  In my calmest, most determined voice I went through the points I had scribbled on paper.  When I finished, the Secretary asked if there were questions.  Silence.  The complete absence of sound   I broke into a cold sweat; had I sounded foolish?  Did I say something that offended someone? Were my points all factually correct?  Goodness, I was out of my league and over my head on this one!  And then with seamless grace the Secretary stood and looked at me and said, “This all seems like a very reasonable request, thank you for bringing this to my attention and for meeting with me today.” With a broad smile and nod, she looked at those assembled and said, “Gentlemen, would you please see that this it taken care of?”  And she walked out of the room.  Welcome to state government – Karen Snider-style!  Welcome to my first lesson in learning what both determination and the power of one person with common sense and authority can bring!

I went back to my office and with little effort from that day forward, EPSDT funding flowed into the crisis nursery and hundreds, if not thousands, of children received therapeutic care in response to acts more horrific than most of us can imagine.

After several years, it was time for me to work in a larger pond and I assumed leadership of PA Family Support Alliance.  I became reacquainted with Karen Snider in 2012 at an event for Child Abuse Prevention Month sponsored by PFSA.  She was still graceful, very complimentary of our work, and I took the opportunity to sit with her and tell her about the 25 year-old-woman who sat in front of her decades before.  She smiled, hugged me, and said, “I remember and I’m so glad I did not scare you off!”  We continued to cross paths as PFSA worked in partnership with the Girl Scouts on child protection policies and training; Karen Snider was a member of their governing board. Then, PFSA worked on a multi-year family engagement initiative within Harrisburg School District, where she led the Harrisburg Public Schools Foundation. For many years our offices were in the same building and she was ever present on Sundays – her favorite time to do office work. We’d sometimes talk in the parking lot; we’d always smile and nod in a way that made us both recall a different time.

Though I now have gray hair, wrinkles, and am a grandmother, I always still felt much like a “kid” in her presence.  Maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. She cheered me on that day in 1993 surrounded by men who were nearly twice my age.    What I learned during that very first meeting in Harrisburg is that one person can do the right thing for children and make a difference.  Karen made a choice to be a champion for kids throughout her lifetime- as an entry level social worker, then as Secretary of Public Welfare, and finally as a volunteer.  I’m sure she had lots of choices and she chose to be a champion for PA’s children.  Lots of folks gathered at a church in Camp Hill this week to say a final thank you and goodbye to Karen.  She died peacefully in her sleep and I’m sure she did so with lots of things she still wanted to accomplish.  We each have a choice about the issues we support.  Our state now has one less champion for children and I’m inviting you today to stand up and assume that role.  Live Karen Snider’s example and be a champion for children who are being abused and neglected.

Join our cause, because every kid needs a champion.

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