In Memoriam, Polly Arango

The Family Voices network of family leaders and friends suffered a tremendous loss on Saturday, June 26, 2010 with the sudden, unexpected passing of our founding Executive Director, Polly Arango.

Many have written eloquently about Polly’s personal and professional impact on their lives and work. Polly’s dedication, wisdom, generosity and multiple talents will be deeply missed. Among Polly’s many skills were her ability to conceptualize and communicate ideas in elegant and simple language, her ability to align diverse groups to accomplish a common goal and her capacity to mentor others. These gifts played a critical role in the formation and development of the national Family Voices organization and the Family-to-Family Health Information Centers, now funded in every state and the District of Columbia

When President Clinton began work on health care reform in 1992, there was no national strategy to engage families in the debate. Out of this need, Family Voices was born. Polly became the first Executive Director and brought compelling skills to the role. She was a passionate advocate who power of language. To be convincing, Polly thought, we must be able to express our ideas in straightforward, simple words. No fluff allowed! Every week Polly produced a “one pager” with key ideas about the needs of children with special needs and health care reform. These were disseminated to thousands by fax and mail. These excellent pieces built the reputation of Family Voices as a trusted resource.

Polly believed in the power of a story to deliver a message. Family Voices represented the power of thousands of these stories. We were (and still are!) real people delivering messages from real life. It is a unique and much-needed perspective. Polly had a special talent for nurturing and cultivating this voice. Polly’s vision of family was wide and inclusive. She believed in the strength of all families to nurture themselves and their children and to partner in improving health care. She conveyed this message with conviction from kitchen tables to board rooms and negotiating tables, as well as to state, national and international audiences.

Polly, along with her husband John, was an experienced community organizer. She knew the value of shared responsibility and of building common goals. Polly was a skilled listener, who recognized that everyone’s concerns were important, and who also knew how to create consensus when needed. Polly was a mentor who was superb at identifying other family leaders’ skills and interests and engaging them in areas they cared about. As Polly was invited to state and national arenas, she often brought local families along to learn the ropes and experience the national scene. Polly believed in family professional partnerships as a core principle of family-centered care. She was expert at building common ground with professional partners and working together to advance shared goals.

The health care reform of the 1990s was not successful, yet, the idea that families had key roles to play in partnering to improve health care had gained a firm foundation. The need for Family Voices as an organization to give voice to families, to support and connect family leadership and to promote the concepts of family-centered care was clear. Polly’s extraordinary skills had led the way. Polly led the Family Voices organization for 10 years through the development of pilot Family-to-Family sites and the writing of federal legislation to fund Family-to-Family Health Information Centers. Polly continued to contribute to Family Voices in multiple formal and informal roles throughout her retirement. Polly was generous in all that she did.

Thank you, Polly. Your vision of a vibrant national network of connected families, encompassing families from all races, cultures and backgrounds, with the skills and support to help other families and to partner with professionals working toward family-centered, community based, comprehensive, coordinated, culturally competent health services is in place. The work will continue. Your legacy will live on in the hearts, minds and work of generations to come. Your spirit will forever be our guide.