chooses a life of service
By SHARON ALMIRALL
Photography KIT WILLIAMS
Jennifer Atler is a passionate and
committed woman, working
tirelessly for the community,
but you can bet that she knows
how to unwind.
Her elixir for fun is Max, the 4-yearold
son who is at the very core of her life.
A swimmer and a skier, he is a guy with
a sense of fun and a vision of the world
that’s totally honest.
“We want him to find what makes him
happy,” Atler says of Max. She knows
what makes her happy, and it’s Max and
her unswerving devotion to making the
world a better place for kids. As executive
director of Invest in Kids, Atler pours her
passion into her work, when she’s not
pouring her time into parenting Max.
Jennifer Atler, 35, can tell you the
moment she recognized she needed to
devote her life’s work to community service.
It was when she experienced her
own mother’s public revelation about the
incest she had suffered from the age of
5 until she left home for college.
It had happened in 1991, when Atler
was in college, that her mother’s story
broke in the public arena. Atler’s mother,
Marilyn Van Derbur, told of the abuse
she had suffered at her home until she
left for college at 18. Van Derbur, Miss
America of 1958, would go on to write
Miss America by Day: Lessons Learned
from the Ultimate Betrayals and
When Van Derbur hosted a meeting
at a Montview church, an event that
wasn’t particularly publicized, 1,100
people arrived to hear the former beauty
queen speak. “We walked in, and the
shame just hung in the room,” Atler now
says. “That night changed my life, and I
knew I didn’t want to go into business, I
wanted to work in the community.”
Atler believes now she is doing what
she is meant to do, what gives her purpose
and career fulfillment: “I can’t wait
to go to work every single day, and I feel
so lucky to have been given this opportunity
so early in my career. I feel so privileged.”
She passes her enthusiasm for
service on to young women who are
considering their career options.
Educated at Duke University and later
Georgetown University, Atler studied
economics and law. She received honors at both universities and was headed
toward the legal profession when she
launched her career at a prestigious
Denver law firm, Holland and Hart,
working in tax and corporate law. “I
loved it (working at Holland and Hart). It
was a nurturing environment,” she says.
Not only was the environment nurturing,
but so was a senior partner at the
firm who mentored her. “He took me to
a meeting of what would become in
1999 the organization Invest In Kids,”
she recalls. Atler was hired on as associate
director, and eight months later,
director Bill Rosser retired. Atler took the
reins and grew the Invest in Kids staff
from two to 12 people.
The law degree was a first step in
finding her life’s calling as she worked
with the senior partner at Holland and
Hart. Though Atler had known since she
was 13 years old about the abuse her
mother had suffered, hearing her mother’s
talk at Montview was a turning point
for her. “It had a different feel to it when
the story broke. I knew then I needed to
change my career plans,” she says.
Atler began her work at Invest in Kids
by doing randomized research with lowincome
mothers who were staying at
home. She and Bill Rosser got in the car
and started driving around the state to
tell about the program. In 2000, the
Colorado legislature helped with funding.
Over 25 years, the Nurse Family
Partnership would realize $300 million in
funding, which funds 2,200 women in
52 of the 64 counties in Colorado.
In 2002, Invest in Kids was hearing
communities ask for research-based programs.
The communities wanted to have
data that showed positive outcomes for
children. They were willing to look at
programs for health, school readiness
and more. Invest in Kids developed The
Incredible Years in the fall of 2002. Now,
the program works in 22 communities
and serves some 2,000 kids. “We are a
catalyst for communities to decide if
these programs are a fit for them. Our
role is to help maintain the integrity of
the program,” explains Atler.
Marilyn Van Derbur had not had role
models in her life, but she became a “phenomenal mother,” according to
Atler. She says Van Derbur tells her audience,
as well as her daughter, that “it’s
not what life throws at you, but how you
respond to it that makes you who you
are.” A terrific motivational speaker, Van
Derbur coaches her daughter when she
speaks in public. “It’s fun for us to work
together,” Atler says.
Events in the past few months have
tested Atler’s ability to take what life
throws at her. She suffered the loss of a
baby delivered stillborn a few months
ago. “My mother was right there with
me through it all,” she says. More
recently, Atler and her husband, Joel,
As she looks at the people in her life
who serve as role models for her, Atler says
that both of her parents have been role
models: “Each of them has had a tremendous
impact on my life.” Bill Rosser, her
former mentor at Holland and Hart, was
another great influence. “He invested in
me, put me out there,” she says. Rosser’s
belief in her, as well as that of her parents,
encouraged her growth.
Atler passes on her commitment to
fulfilling her passion to other women,
particularly those who are searching for
the best career decision. She receives
many requests for career advice and is
pleased to help. When she envisions a
role model, Atler names integrity as a key
quality, and she also believes that clarity
of mission is essential.
She advises, “Be respectful of everyone,
those above you, those below you.
Knowing that you don’t get anywhere
alone is important, as is being willing to
mentor others and help them find their
place. Having a can-do attitude, a positive
attitude, a belief in yourself is invaluable.
Showing courage in the face of a challenge
is important, and having the ability to ‘know what you don’t know and not
being afraid to know it’ goes a long way
when it comes to being a role model.”
Atler meets regularly with people who
want to switch from the for-profit world to
a not-for-profit setting. She spends a great
deal of time networking with such people
and does what she can to help them.
Atler is comfortable talking about how
she made a switch from working with top
attorneys in Denver and leaving that to do
community work. She shows how those
who have lived lives of privilege can
change their lives to do community work.
She considers this mentoring she does to
be an important part of who she is. “What
greater gift than to connect someone with
their passion?” she comments.
Believing that people have many
dimensions to their lives, Atler supports
her staff in their desire to take care of
their families. Only three people on the
staff at Invest in Kids work full time; the
others work part time. She, too, has personal
commitments. With a 4-year-old
son to care for, she is aware of the tug of
“The most refreshing thing about Max
is his honesty and the clarity with which he
sees the world. What we’re trying to
impart to him is to be respectful and kind.
Both Joel and I have worked really hard
with him,” she says. Max spends a lot of
time with both of his parents.
Atler gives as much time as she can to
the community aside from her work with
Invest in Kids. She was named to the
board of trustees for the Rose Community
Foundation in January. She is also on the
Foundation’s health committee and is a
founding member of the Jewish Women’s
Fund of Colorado. She has been named a
woman of distinction by the Girl Scouts —
Mile High Council and received the
Children’s Health and Welfare Award from
the Colorado Chapter of the American
Academy of Pediatrics. She was named a
fellow in the Livingston Fellowship
Program in 2006.
A graduate of Grayland Country Day
and Manual High School, Atler still interacts
with her friends from the school
years. She is very close to her parents and
considers the three of them — as she is
an only child — a team. “It was always
kind of the three of us against the
world,” she remarks.
This outstanding role model says she
wants to “do this for the rest of my life,
whether it’s in Colorado or across the
country, to bring these programs to others.
I can’t imagine a better use of my
time and energy.”