Some people exist in an “ivory tower.” Such was the case with Richard Atlas, who lived in a luxurious Westside home, drove his expensive car to work, parked in an underground garage at his lucrative job in a high rise office with beautiful views, and then reversed the routine to go home.
“I spent very little time on the streets between those two places,” he says.
After Richard became a founding member of the California Endowment, his eyes were opened to the reality of life for a majority of people.
The California Endowment is a private, statewide health foundation that was created in 1996 as a result of Blue Cross of California’s creation of WellPoint Health Networks, a for-profit corporation. Its mission is to expand access to affordable, quality health care for underserved individuals and communities, and to promote fundamental improvements in the health status of all Californians.
While serving on the board of directors, Richard had the opportunity to travel throughout California to learn about the needs of the people. He visited homeless shelters, the Central Valley where agricultural workers lived and tenements in MacArthur Park, among other places.
“I saw things that I read about but seeing them and smelling them made it different,” he says. “I remember walking back to my car and having to sit for ten minutes to stabilize myself. I just couldn’t believe that people lived like that in Los Angeles, let alone everywhere else in the country and, worse even, in other parts of the world.”
When Richard retired he knew he wanted to devote his time, energy and resources to changing lives in the community with a focus on the most vulnerable members — children. The Atlas Family Foundation was formed with his wife Lezlie, and Janis Minton as executive director. It became evident to them that the earlier you work with people the higher the returns are in terms of human capital.
“It’s ironic and a real dichotomy that most funding goes towards human capital in the later stages of development, where early stages of development are where the returns are higher,” he says. “So, we decided to focus on investing in young children in the early stages to prevent problems in later life.”
The Atlas Foundation does not give money away. It makes grants as an investment. As an investor himself, Richard knew that the longer one stays with an investment, and if they believe in what they are investing in, the higher the return. The foundation decided to be careful in vetting the agencies that it would support and look for those that had the potential to be long-term equity partners.
“We look for partners who will trust us to be an equal partner, not the most powerful” he says. “It is our belief that the people who are working with the families have the most difficult job and they are supplying their resources and we are supplying ours. We can’t do without them and they can’t do without us.”
One of the local partners is the Venice social service agency St. Joseph Center, which has the longest relationship of all the grantees. Richard was a guest speaker at a retirement dinner for former center executive director Rhonda Meister. He spoke of the center as an example of how the Atlas Family Foundation works with agencies.
He recalled their early childhood program for children of the homeless and the way that the parents paid for the children to be in the program was by attending parenting education classes. He felt it was a good program but thought it should be more developmental.
“Our goal was to interrupt this cycle of poverty that took these families to a homeless kind of experience,” he says. “Our funding was to help bring resources into the program to the teachers and the parents who would increase their understanding of the research behind early development and also give them tools to translate that research to how to deal with their kids.”
Although people always thank him for the assistance from the foundation, Richard acknowledged how much the agencies help in terms of their commitment, not just St. Joseph Center, but to the 22 other agencies that are funded throughout Los Angeles County as well.
“It’s the people doing the work who are the real heroes,” he says. “They’re paid very little. In most cases, they work in facilities that are substandard with technology that is substandard.
“They’re working with families who are very, very vulnerable. Their assets are their character and their values. They couldn’t do it without having a combination of heart and mind blended into one.”
In closing, Richard spoke about what investor and businessman Warren Buffet, who was ranked in 2008 by Forbes magazine as the richest person in the world, called the “birth lottery.”
“You can’t choose who you are born to.” He said that the only thing that separated his granddaughter and a little girl he saw in a tenement who was running in a hall with cat feces on the floor were fate and luck.
Before he traveled through the state, he says he never thought about the people who cleaned his office, who parked his car and who prepared his meals in restaurants. Or the gardeners who maintained his yard, or the farm workers who picked the fruit that he ate.
“I would see them but I never really thought about where they were when they weren’t doing their jobs,” he says. “Where do their children go to school? What if one of them needs braces? Do the women see an obstetrician when they are pregnant?”
Richard says his newfound awareness made him feel connected to the community in a holistic way.
“I feel that for those of us who have had wonderful opportunities, there is a sense of responsibility to try to create a sense of justice and equity among everyone,” he says. “Some people I know say I did it on my own and somebody else could do it on their own. I think the reality is that nobody does it on their own.
“You weren’t nursed and nourished as an infant on your own. You had parents, family, teachers and coaches who were helping you. Mentors at work helped you. The reality is that we all need support and some of us have more access to it than others. I want to try to equalize that a little bit by improving access for the people who don’t have it readily. It comes from my heart.”
We are approaching the holiday season and it’s the time for giving and receiving. This year, more than ever, families will be in need. While we may not have resources of a foundation, we can still do our part to bring cheer to those who have less.