We spoke recently with Kelly Wolfe, vice president of public affairs and advocacy at Presence. Wolfe joined the company in 2020, following nearly a decade of leading public affairs and advocacy in Minnesota’s largest children’s hospital. Earlier in her career, Wolfe served as a 4th- and 5th-grade teacher in Louisiana and shared with us a story that still drives her work forward today: about a 10-year-old-boy named Henry whose experience of trauma forever changed his life (and hers).
Following is the full transcript of Wolfe’s Q&A interview. Topics range from her concerns about the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations to one of her highest priorities: supporting providers in reaching more children across the country.
What inspires you about Presence?
I am so inspired by the mission of Presence and our company-wide dedication to serving all children with special needs, including those who may otherwise have limited access to resources. Our work is to expand access to services so that children can meet their fullest potential. I can’t think of anything more important and more urgent than that in education today.
What do you see as core priorities for serving more children?
One of the things I’ve been focused on is how we can increase access to services through advocacy and relationship building and decrease the administrative and licensing hurdles that prevent us from reaching more kids. If the government can establish coordinated, more efficient approaches to licensing providers, especially across state lines, we can more easily reach kids that need our services the most.
Right now a provider might hold a license in an individual state, but have the capacity and skills to serve students in multiple states. A lack of time, resources, and various state requirements prevent providers from being able to get those separate state certifications in a timely manner or at all.
Many states are facing workforce shortages and don’t have enough providers to reach all kids so they could really benefit from being able to draw upon a nationwide network of providers who are approved to serve children in any state. During the 2021 legislative session, there is legislation that will help speech-language pathologists (SLPs) extend their licenses across state lines. We have seen this type of legislation addressed and passed for other provider groups. I am hopeful we will see this legislation pass for SLPs. Given the current climate and COVID-19 crisis, this is one easy way to expand access and ensure all kids have the speech resources they need.
What do you see as core priorities for the nation?
Our country is at a crossroads: a history-making moment in our nation. We can go back to doing business as usual, which was not working for many of the children in our country. Or we can look at this moment as an opportunity—and pivot to setting up our kids better for long-term success. We need to evaluate what was working and what was not—and learn from the lessons of the last nine months, including the potential of telehealth and teletherapy. It’s time to really and fully address the educational gaps that exist in this country and turn them into opportunities for children. If we can target our resources and use them wisely, we can create engaging opportunities for children who need them most. It’s time to create a new system where children are the center, and the resources they need are built around them.
We need to fully invest in the kids who have been consistently left behind: children with disabilities, English Language Learners, and children of color. We need to fully fund IDEA, equip our teachers and schools with the supports and tools they need, and heavily invest in the mental and behavioral health of our children. So many of our kids have experienced adverse childhood events (ACEs) and everyone has been impacted by the COVID crisis and the civil and domestic unrest that has plagued our country. Children who are grieving, frightened, or triggered by current events cannot be expected to excel. And we cannot expect teachers to shoulder that burden alone. We need to prioritize all aspects of our children’s health and development and ensure there is a pipeline of appropriate support and resources available.
Describe your background. How does it connect to your sense of purpose?
I spent the last 15 years in government and public policy in Minnesota, including the last nine years leading advocacy and public affairs at the state’s largest children’s hospital, where I advocated on issues such as Medicaid, early child development, health disparities, safe school environments, housing, and food insecurity—all of the things it takes to help a child be healthy. As a child-health advocate, my goal was, and still is, to create a better and more equitable system and infrastructure for our kids. Children make up a little more than 20 percent of our country’s population yet we invest less than 10 percent of federal spending on kids under 18. For the population that will be in charge of and responsible for our future, we really don’t invest in them like we should.
My previous experience ties in directly with my work at Presence, also a mission-driven organization focused on ensuring children have what they need to thrive. I appreciate how Presence works with schools to take a holistic view on child development, and how together we can give kids what they need in and out of school. It truly takes a village and schools are an essential part of that.
The COVID-19 vaccine is a national priority right now and a concern for the schools Presence serves. What are your concerns?
The state where I live, Minnesota, is an interesting example. It has one of the most lenient vaccination laws in the country. As a result, we are starting to see the anti-vaccine movement take hold, which is resulting in decreases in our immunization rates. Most states have vaccination requirements to enter public schools and colleges. Most also have medical and religious exemptions to accommodate those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons or because it violates a religious belief. In a few states, including Minnesota, there is also a philosophical and personal exemption for anyone who chooses not to vaccinate. Because of relaxed laws and an increase in anti-vaccine sentiment, we have seen measles outbreaks and deaths in select communities across the country. Measles, once declared eliminated by the World Health Organization, was confirmed in more than 1200 cases in 30 states in 2019.
It will be interesting to see what the vaccination policy response is with COVID-19. Will schools require vaccination for participation, will there be a mandatory vaccine requirement for sports physicals or for kids to play? Every state will likely pass their own laws to varying degrees with different approaches, and thus, different success rates.
But I am concerned with the way COVID-19 and the vaccines have become entangled in politics. Unfortunately, it will have a trickle-down effect on the health of our kids. Many states may well end up shying away from controversy, shying away from science, and not passing strong vaccination laws. And, as we know, the population of kids we serve at Presence can be vulnerable, often with other underlying health conditions, such as asthma, or other health impairments that may make them more at risk for serious effects of COVID-19. Many of the kids we serve depend on herd immunity and for the majority of the population to be vaccinated to protect them. Passing vaccination laws is one way we can protect the most vulnerable among us and protect the kids we serve every day.
Any impactful moments to share from your career?
Yes. My two years teaching in Louisiana had a significant impact on me and truly changed my career trajectory. It was an honor to have an opportunity to meet and teach so many incredible kids. It was also the most eye-opening experience and the one that illuminated just how under-resourced many of our country’s schools are, and as a result, how under-served our kids are.
Henry was one of my favorite students. He was smart, funny and had the most charming smile. He had all the potential to be a natural leader. Tragically, Henry and his family experienced the most significant trauma life can deal to anyone. He was only 10-years-old when he lost both his father and baby sister in a drowning accident during what was supposed to be a celebratory birthday party.
Understandably, Henry had a difficult time coping. He shut down and expressed his grief through anger and disinterest. At times he refused to do his work and to engage and of course his grades suffered. On many days, I would just sit with him during recess and allow him to talk about his family, to process what happened. What he went through is traumatic for any person, never mind for a young child. And sadly, there were no mental health resources to help. He was left to carry that grief and loss alone. It was such a helpless feeling knowing I couldn’t give Henry what he needed the most.
I think about him every day. He, and all my other students, are what propel me to do the work I do. The good news is that he seems to be doing okay. I recently found him online via social media and he is the proud father of a beautiful little girl. But I wonder everyday what life could have been like if he, and all the kids who experience loss or trauma, were given the help they truly needed, when they needed it most.
Part of what I love about Presence is we are working every day to reach kids like Henry. Had Presence been around back then, he could have very likely received the help he really needed. I think about that a lot and am so grateful for the kids like Henry we can now help today.
Anything else to add?
I’m optimistic about where things may be heading for children, especially those with special needs. For a long time these children had inadequate resources, as there was a lack of education and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) funding as well as prioritization. All of those things are now coming to the forefront and are being discussed with a greater sense of importance and urgency. I believe there will be a substantial expansion of telehealth and especially teletherapy, based upon lessons learned from COVID-19 and the needs coming out of the pandemic. I think we really have the opportunity to do good work for the children we serve. In the midst of everything, I really am hopeful for the year ahead and what it means for our kids.
Kelly Wolfe is the vice president of public affairs and advocacy for Presence. She is an external affairs leader with expertise in public policy and government and community affairs. Her long career spans advocacy work at a large children’s hospital; government affairs work, as both a lobbyist and state senate policy advisor; and serving in the classroom as an elementary-school teacher. She is passionate about children’s education and development issues.