Children Now Insider: Meet our Team – A Conversation with Sara Ortega

Meet our Team

A Conversation with Sara Ortega, Special Assistant to the President and Policy Coordinator

Children Now® Insider: Stories, News, And Insights On Children’s Advocacy

For more information on our blog, contact Adrienne Bell at [email protected]

July 22, 2021

On growing up in South Lake Tahoe

I was born and raised in the beautiful town of South Lake Tahoe, and am the eldest daughter of Nicaraguan immigrants.

Being a local in this idyllic mountain vacation destination, I was also exposed to a very different side of Tahoe. The members of my community, the folks at the 7 p.m. Spanish language mass, typically worked in casinos, hotels, and restaurants as part of the tourism service industry. My community was poor, with many people earning minimum wage and speaking broken English. I remember the pervasive fear of la migra, especially after my friend’s dad was taken while he was working to support his family. I knew many hardworking, neighborly people who were undocumented and feared they were next.

While my community members never explicitly complained about the stressors in their lives, there was an implicit understanding of the struggle that everyone was silently experiencing. I saw people weighing the trade-offs of their health decisions: preferring to live with pain and possible disability as a result of their work rather than seek out help due to the repercussions, such as an expensive medical bill, the fear of being taken advantage of due to a language barrier, or the threat of deportation.


On the importance of public health

My exposure to the health disparities I witnessed during my childhood propelled me to pursue a career in health. I went to UC Berkeley and fell in love with public health’s macro and holistic approach to community challenges because it gave me the framework to voice the challenges I had seen in my own community while growing up.

And after living through the historic events of the past year and a half – witnessing the huge disparities in our nation’s pandemic response, against a backdrop of the fight for our lives against police brutality and systemic racism – I recognize that we need to put public health at the forefront of all policy decision making.

As I continue to grow in my career, and once I receive my MPH from the Gillings School of Global Health, I want to work with leaders to see policy issues through a racial equity lens, to push science-driven decision making only possible through nuanced understanding and analysis of data; and to challenge the status quo and recent events that have only reinforced the need for change.


On translating research and policy into impact

As an undergrad, I benefited from working in two very different environments.

The first was at the Front Office Operations for Kaiser Permanente’s Northern California locations. At the regional office, I tackled a significant barrier that keeps people from seeking the help they need – language. My project was to create an affirming and effective experience for patients for whom English was their second language. I developed a script and workflow which supported more than 4,000 receptionists at Kaiser facilities to improve the way they were registering patients and guide non-English speaking patients along the Kaiser system.

I also had the privilege of interning for Congresswoman Barbara Lee in my congressional district. In speaking with Oakland’s diverse constituents, I developed a better understanding of what it takes to support our constituency. Throughout this internship, I was able to apply my policy analysis skills to real situations, and see how the research I did could support individuals in the community. I strengthened my communications, both in writing and via phone, and the internal memos I drafted helped inform Congresswoman Lee on everything from the complex causes of homelessness in the Bay Area to what levers we might move to alleviate homelessness.


On joining Children Now and wearing multiple hats

After graduating from college, I began working here at Children Now. My position supports the president with scheduling, internal organizational management, external communications, outreach activities, and fundraising efforts.

I was drawn to Children Now because of the all the different policy areas the organization focuses on, and how they impact kids. I’ve had the opportunity to learn about each of the critical kids’ issues that we work on and see how a lot of them overlap with the broader themes of racial equity and systemic action.

I recently transitioned into a split policy coordinator role, where I also support our health team with bill tracking, draft letters of support for submission into the California Legislation portal, conduct research, assist with communications materials, and attend various webinars with universities, hospital systems, and advocacy groups.


On balancing work and school (as a grad student)

It definitely requires me to be very organized and disciplined. After a long day of work when I’m pretty drained, the last thing I want to do is my grad school assignments, but I remind myself to focus on my end goal. I’m doing this so I can get my MPH and make a positive difference in people’s lives!

I’m lucky because the program I’m in is designed to be completely remote (this was established pre-pandemic) and a lot of my classmates are also working professionals, so the structure lends itself to students who are balancing work and school. The professors and counselors have been really accommodating and it’s nice because they treat us like colleagues and equals.

When I was an undergrad, in many ways I was just as busy as I am now. I was juggling a full course load, an internship, and working 30 hours per week, and it was exhausting. I was constantly trying to rush across campus, trying to get from one thing to the next on time.

In some ways, the remote aspect of this program actually makes it easier! I don’t have to worry about running out of the office to get to class – right now the office and class are both in my apartment – and cutting out travel time makes a pretty big difference in what I can get done.


On things to look forward to as the world opens up again

I’m very excited to just travel again, and cannot wait to visit my family in Nicaragua this December! It’ll be a nice change to get out of my bubble here in San Pablo and see people I haven’t been with in such a  long time. I’m also looking forward to chowing down on some delicious food!

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