Some people have a rare ability to make visions come to life. They create tangible solutions to fix a dire need or gap that exists in the world. This spark of creation, the ability to make something out of nothing takes determination, endless resolve, and even a bit of magic. Karen Redlener, co-founder of Children’s Health Fund, has all of these things.
People are molded by moments of uncertainty. Much like today, Karen grew up in a time of immense change in the United States, the 1960s. It was a period where disenfranchised populations began to speak up during the civil rights movement, JFK had recently been assassinated, and the first mandatory draft had gone into effect. Friends were being forced to partake in a war they didn’t believe in. Karen’s generation became upset and vocal about the state of the nation. Karen made a promise to herself that she would help be an agent of change. A daughter of entrepreneurs, she went through childhood seeing firsthand what the power of “yes I can,” meant. As she was nearing the end of her sociology studies in 1971, she found VISTA recruiters on the college campus and without looking back, signed up for the program.
Karen was sent to Dallas to train and await assignment, but it didn’t take long before her background led to a match. Dr. Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician and medical director at the Lee County Cooperative Clinic in Marianna, Arkansas, was looking for someone to start a social services program, as the needs of his patients extended well beyond medical care. Karen proved to be an eager and dedicated recruit. She never felt overwhelmed with the enormity of the task, wasn’t daunted by the rampant racism or even fazed by the distance from her home in California. There was only one thing on her mind, beginning her career to create impact.
Arriving in Arkansas was an eye-opening experience for Karen. She had volunteered previously with children living in poverty but had never before seen the level she was encountering. Children were living in shacks without running water, playing barefoot in the dirt. Confronted with the task of how to help address the dire needs of impoverished families, Karen was sent for training to one of the most forward-thinking programs in the nation at the time, the University of Colorado Medical Center, by Dr. Redlener. There she learned to identify vision, hearing, speech and child development problems. She went on to develop a screening, referral, and education program in a five-county region in rural Arkansas working with the local Head Start programs.
Karen also went on to develop a new social services program at the health center in Lee County so that families would have access to resources and services that would help address the social issues they faced. When she left the health center two years later, she had laid an incredible foundation, with trained staff in place. She also left hand-in-hand with her soon-to-be lifelong partner, Irwin Redlener, and took on her next challenge, motherhood, in Miami. In her spirit of “yes I can,” Karen spent the next few years working in healthcare, helping her husband start his own clinic, figuring out the business aspects of the practice, then moving her family to New York, and beginning her Master’s Degree in Health Management.
For someone who has tackled many challenges with an attitude of “If I don’t do it, who will?” it was no surprise that when a new challenge arose, Karen met it head on while still in graduate school. The opportunity came about to create a new program, a way in which to bring a whole doctor’s office to children and families in the homeless shelter system in New York where they were living in deplorable conditions and in desperate need of medical care. It was presented to her by Dr. Redlener and singer/song-writer Paul Simon. Karen was given the concept, an office (Paul Simon’s), and the question, “Can you figure this out?”
Thus came the design for the first pediatric mobile medical clinic—though it was met with some skepticism. Karen and Irwin were not daunted by the critics, instead, they marched into meetings with plans in hand. In the meantime, Karen was juggling her classes and caring for four children. She refused to take no for an answer. As a result, Irwin and Paul Simon’s vision came to life with Karen as the head architect.
Children’s Health Fund is now the largest network of mobile based primary and mental healthcare for children living in poverty in the United States. In 32 years of providing care, it has had over 4.5 million health encounters. Those doctor visits represent millions of moments where Karen’s care, commitment to change, and problem-solving skills have been felt across the United States.
Karen notes there is still so much more to be done. “We started Children’s Health Fund to help children improve their opportunities in life.” When she and Irwin started to think about children’s educational needs, they knew it was time for the organization to address “health barriers to learning” to help ensure their academic success. Blueprints in hand once again, Karen built Children’s Health Fund’s Healthy and Ready to Learn initiative, developing new ways of bringing healthcare services directly into the school system. Karen knew that if care was brought to them, children would get essential screenings and services, have fewer absences, and could be both physically and mentally present in their classrooms.
The Healthy and Ready to Learn program is now in its sixth year addressing, treating, and bringing about awareness of health barriers to learning faced by children. The intersection of health and education is receiving heightened attention, and Karen’s team of educators, health professionals, and administrators are innovating in this field.
As long as there is work to be done and problems to be solved to improve the lives and well-being of children, Karen Redlener will continue to design and build programs that have an impact. “I feel invigorated and fortunate to have worked in places where innovation has been welcome and opportunity has been provided,” says Karen. “There is not a level playing field for every child and we need to address this as a society.”