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Rebekah Fennell


Children’s Healthcare Access Program (CHAP)

118 Commerce SW
Suite 300
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49503
Rebekah Fennell serves as the executive director of First Steps Kent, a public/private partnership working to improve the lives of children and prepare them for Kindergarten. Fennell brings a collaborative spirit to community work, with an eye on strengthening early childhood services for all families.  
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Rebekah Fennell, Executive Director of First Steps: Being a leader means inspiring others to work toward a common goal, especially when achieving that goal requires that people do things that aren’t necessarily in their own self-interest. Leadership requires that you really listen to and respect people’s various viewpoints and can build consensus on the best available course of action.
Leaders also have to know when to let go so that others can get going.
Leaders also have to know when to let go so that others can get going. I have benefitted from a wise board member’s refrain: "Don’t let perfect get in the way of progress." That quote is on the white board in my office. A good dose of humility is required as well. We all have something to learn from each other and pride can easily get in the way of that. Finally, laughter is an ingredient that I couldn’t do without – it keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously!
What is your dream for kids?
Our motto at First Steps is “Growing every child’s potential,” and my dream really is that every young child has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential and that parents have the skills and resources they need to make that happen. Every child deserves that opportunity. However, it only can happen if our most vulnerable children and their families have access to quality early childhood services such as home-based parenting education, preschool, childcare and a medical home. Our community’s future depends on providing opportunities that put all children on the path to success.  
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
Despite the overwhelming evidence that quality early childhood programs pay for themselves several times over, we continue to under-invest in our youngest children. We need policy makers to reallocate public resources so that we are investing in evidence-based programs that support the health, development and education of young children – programs that are proven [to be] effective in increasing graduation rates, reducing crime and welfare dependency, and building a strong and competent work force. Wouldn’t you rather your tax dollars pay for preschool than prison?
At the same time, those of us working in the social sector need to be good stewards of the resources we have, ensuring that they are being used as effectively as possible. The creation of the Michigan Office of Great Start – which is streamlining dozens of funding streams – is an important step in that direction.
How do you know you’re making progress?
We know that we’re making progress when outcomes for children improve. We are working to establish a series of common indicators and outcomes in Kent County to measure our collective impact on children.
The community needs to be assured that we have the systems in place to know what’s working, and invest in those programs and initiatives that families want and need and are making the biggest impact. 
The community needs to be assured that we have the systems in place to know what’s working, and invest in those programs and initiatives that families want and need and are making the biggest impact. 
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of the collaborative spirit that drives our community’s work to strengthen the system of early childhood services. We have a common vision that every young child in Kent County will enter kindergarten healthy and ready to succeed in school and life. Collaboration empowers a diverse coalition of child advocates working together to tackle the obstacles in the way of realizing that vision.   
In speaking with younger people who are interested in careers in the social sector, what advice would you give?
Follow your passion! You aren’t going to get rich and the work isn’t easy, but there’s no greater satisfaction than knowing that you have improved the life of a child and made your community a better place to live. I have tremendous pride in the work of First Steps and our many partners, and I truly believe that we’re building systems that will benefit this community for years to come.
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