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Children’s protector

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Lifelong advocate named head of national child abuse prevention group.

By Ret Boney

When Judith Rényi was in grade school in Philadelphia, she remembers the “gifted” children getting all the good teachers while the regular kids were left with the rest. 

She also remembers reading aloud in alphabetical order and watching some of her classmates struggle.

“The other children hadn’t a clue what they were reading and I couldn’t understand why not,” she says.  “But I understood the exercise we were doing wasn’t helping them.”

Those early experiences left a mark on Rényi, who spent more than two decades of her professional career trying to even the playing field for all children, and now brings that dedication with her as she takes over the helm of Prevent Child Abuse America.

“Kids, just because of how wealthy or impoverished they are have such enormously different life chances,” she says.  “It doesn’t need to be that way.  What we need to do is do a much better job of making their life chances as good as anyone else’s.”

This month Rényi takes over as president and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America, a national group that works to protect children by conducting research, education, training and advocacy, and by supporting 39 local affiliates spanning 47 states and the District of Columbia.

Rényi has represented children her entire career, mostly through strengthening public education, and now brings her skills to Prevent Child Abuse, which has a budget of $6 million and about 40 staffers, she says.

“I see myself as an institution builder,” says Rényi.  “I help the adults learn how to do what they do better.  That’s been my career, so it’s really a shift of that same work to how you position parents to be terrific and how do you position organizations to support them.”

In the early 80’s, Rényi served as a fellow of the Humanities Council at New York University, where her early projects in connecting teachers to community resources led to an interest in helping teachers teach better.

Judith Rényi

Job: President, CEO, Prevent Child Abuse America, Chicago

Born: 1947, Philadelphia

Family: Husband, Joseph Phillips; daughter, 31; son, 28

Education: B.A., Ph.D., English, University of Pennsylvania; M.A., English, University of Warwick, England

Inspiration: I’ve had some unbelievably fabulous mentors,
a string of great women have been chairs of the boards I’ve been involved with.  I hope and pray I can be useful to other young women.”

Hobbies:  Amateur cellist; attending summer string quartet camp; gardening; cooking

Favorite Music: “A week without Beethoven is a wasted week.”

Currently Reading: Waverly novels by Sir Walter Scott

So in 1984, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, among others, she started the Philadelphia Education Fund to enhance arts and sciences education in public schools by bringing teachers together with leaders from cultural groups and the business and civic worlds.

The program was a success and the Rockefeller Foundation provided funding to replicate the program in 17 major cities around the country and start three statewide programs for rural areas.

During that time, she and a few friends wanted to have a more personal impact on disadvantaged children, so they pooled their money to start the Richard H. DeLone Memorial Scholarship Fund, named after “a unique person dedicated to helping poor kids get an education.”

The group provides $1,000 per year for four years to high school children who have made significant changes in their attitudes toward education, as well as their performance, between their freshman and senior years.

Since it’s inception, the group has funded about 12 young people and Rényi calls it the high point of her year.

“They stick with it, they don’t drop out of college,” she says.  “That shows me that if some kids can do it, we can do it for many more.  The early years are terribly important, but it’s also possible to help people at all stages of life.  We don’t want to give up on the older kids either.”

In 1994, she became the head of the NEA Foundation for the Improvement of Education in Washington, D.C., where she led the organization in strengthening the education of public school students through programs and services for teachers and other education workers.

During her decade there, she more than quintupled the group’s endowment to $42 million and focused on building its effectiveness in fighting for local, state and national policies that raise student achievement.

“I was hired by the NEA foundation ten years ago to do a set of things, all of which are done,” she says.  “It was time to do a new set of things.”

The board of Prevent Child Abuse has charged Rényi with increasing the group’s visibility, sharpening its focus and better supporting the local chapters so they can move to the next level.

“We’re going to be the go-to organization and we’re going to be on the map big-time,” she says.  “Bigger in terms of revenues and programs.”

To develop the plan of attack, she plans to enter into a year’s worth of strategic planning with a task force of board and staff members and local chapter representatives.

“If we’re going to break a cycle of abuse, we have to find some ways, without intruding in their personal lives, to help people see and practice alternatives,” she says.

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