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Posted: May 01, 2008

Athena Award finalist: Roxane White

Denver ‘turnaround' manager credited for improving social services for the city's poor

Graham Foley

When Roxane White took over the Denver Department of Human Services in 2003, she faced a growing homeless population, a huge backlog of food stamp requests, an underappreciated workforce and orders to lay off 25 percent of her staff.
"It was a dire time for social services," she says. "We had some very big challenges in front of us."

Using her years of experience and extensive education, she designed a viable and creative solution: Get to work.

"Sometimes it’s a practical sense of ‘here’s the need and here’s the resources,’" White says. "You just have to get the resources to the need. It’s not rocket science."

On White’s orders, every member of management and every appointee was trained on food stamp intake, and within days the problem of backlogged food stamp requests was solved. She then opened the warm lobby of Human Services to the freezing homeless population being turned away from packed shelters.

"We have buildings that are heated, and we have people who are cold. These things just need to come together," White says.

It is this practicality and creative management that has led her to the forefront of Mayor John Hickenlooper’s staff, and will carry her to her next position, which she assumed April 15th: head of the Timothy and Bernadette Marquez Foundation.

While this knack for leadership was seasoned on the big-city streets of Denver and San Francisco, that trait has deeper roots cultivated on the farmlands of rural Montana.

Growing up in the small town of Victor, Mont., White heard the call to help while working at a youth camp on Flathead Lake. She found that the children facing challenges at home were drawn to her.

"That’s when the bug bit me," she says.

She pursued her education accordingly, earning a master’s in divinity degree. White thought she would become a youth pastor, but her experience at seminary working with troubled children led her back to school for social-work pursuits.

"Working with people in need is where I felt called to be," she says.

White put her training to use heading up multiple youth centers and homeless shelters, often taking control of failing programs and building them into sustainable community resources.
"I like a challenge," she says. "I love turnaround. I love building things. Once things are getting more to sustainability, it’s usually time for somebody else to come in."

As a result, White was the perfect candidate to take over the ailing Department of Human Services. Under her leadership since 2003, child re-abuse and neglect has decreased to 2.3 percent — well under the federal standard of 6.7 — and Denver was named one of only three national training sites for child welfare. But perhaps her crowning achievement is the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, which after two years has already decreased chronic homelessness by 36 percent, and homelessness overall by 11 percent.

Still, according to the program’s current manager Jamie Van Leeuwen, her legacy won't live on in the numbers. It is, and will continue to be, reflected in the people she has helped.

"It’s interesting because, as she moves to the Marquez Foundation, it’s not just what her legacy is, but what it will continue to be," Van Leeuwen says. "It’s the advocacy and the human face that Roxane has brought to the poor and underserved in this community. The voice that she has given to the poor of this community is her crowning achievement.

"We very are sad to see her go, but we are very fortunate that Roxane White will continue to be a part of this community."

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