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By Laura A. Roser

SAY San Diego CEO Nancy Gannon Hornberger has spent her career providing support to families of struggling children and to youth directly. “Growing up, my youngest brother was a child with lots of energy and emotion and creativity, and it was very hard for his teachers to entice him into conforming to the typical student sitting behind a desk,” Nancy says. Her parents had their own conflicts, so Nancy became somewhat of a parent to him. By the time he was in older elementary school, it was determined that he had psychiatric problems, and he was shuffled away to an institution.

“When he returned home, he was never the same,” Nancy recalls. She doesn’t believe he was properly diagnosed and feels like the systems that were meant to heal his life, in fact, did a great deal of harm. She also notes that there wasn’t much support for her parents or family to help cope with the challenges they were facing.

Creating a New Paradigm for Families

Nancy believes that given the financial and creative wealth of the United States, we can do much better for children and families. So, whether working in special education counseling, gun violence prevention, juvenile justice policy, and now at SAY San Diego, all of Nancy’s work has been tied to that core belief. “I really still hold hope that every child can be safe, healthy, well cared for,” she says. “We’re getting closer, but we still have a long way to go.”

In order to make an impact, you must consider the ecosystem that young people live in. Of course, we have our family of origin. For some people that’s a safe, healthy and nurturing environment and, for others, it’s not. Nancy and SAY San Diego’s work revolves around seeing children in the context of their family life and to work with the whole family so that they can live their best lives.

Community support is another major factor impacting the lives of children (it takes a village). This is why Nancy and her team place a lot of emphasis on conditions in communities, systems, and policies that can either support or compromise positive outcomes for children. Community development can take many forms, from reducing violence and drugs to economic empowerment and family resource centers.

A Great Talker

When I asked Nancy if she had any great mentors or heroes, she immediately named her third-grade teacher.

“This was a town in the Midwest,” she says. “There was a lot of racial tension and social strife in the community. But, against the odds, my teacher created a safe haven in our classroom.” The school administrators used corporal punishment, which was considered more acceptable in the 1960s. “And so I was one of those kids who would get essentially slapped on the side of the head with a paddle for talking to the person next to me at lunch because we had silent lunches.”

“She would help me manage the situation, kind of bucking the system. She tried to protect me and spare me harm. I think she knew that my home life wasn’t fully settled. So, she made my experiences in her classroom really special, and she helped me to really find my own strengths and talents. I can actually remember her saying to me, ‘You’re a great talker, and that will be a really good thing for you someday, but you have to be quiet at lunch. But it’s great that you can communicate so well.’ And then she would give me opportunities to make a presentation or sing in front of the high school audience.”

In the Trenches

Now much of Nancy’s work focuses on broader social and systemic changes and working with communities and government, but it wasn’t always that way. Much of her experience came from helping one child at a time.

When she was teaching in Boston, she saw many students carrying illegal guns—feeling like that was a source of personal power for them.

“One of my students killed himself in front of all of us on the school playground,” she says. “Another student shot his best friend on a weekend, and I was just like, oh gosh, these are incredibly overwhelming, incredibly painful situations. I was right there on the front lines.” And then Nancy’s aspirations began to bloom. If she could help people on an individual level, how could she help whole neighborhoods or communities, or even the nation as a whole?

Making a Difference

Nancy advises that if you’re interested in making a difference, start where you are. Often people—especially at the beginning of their careers—feel like they can’t do much to affect bigger change. But they cannot yet see their entire career arc and just how important their experience in the trenches can be. Whether you’re a therapist, a teacher, or have any role working with others, we all play a part in creating a safe community for families. “Keep pushing for the changes you envision,” she suggests.

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Nancy Gannon Hornberger is President & CEO of Social Advocates for Youth (SAY) San Diego. SAY San Diego provides multiservice solutions that strengthen youth, families, and communities with a vision of opportunity, equity, and well-being. Nancy is nationally recognized for more than three decades of experience in social justice, public policy, system reform, and human service and received a commendation from President Bill Clinton in 1996. Prior to joining SAY San Diego, she was executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (1999–2013) and held leadership positions with the National Crime Prevention Council and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Nancy also serves the community as a member of the Advisory Board for San Diego State University (SDSU) School of Social Work, a Lecturer in SDSU’s Weber Honors College, and member of the Citizen Review Panel and Prevention-Early Intervention Committee of the California State Child Welfare Council.