Role Model: Jennifer Atler Chooses a Life of Service

Passion on What she has learned. 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 Unconditional Love. 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.” Jennifer AtlerAtler 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. Jennifer AtlerMarilyn 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, have separated.

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.”

jenniferAtler4Atler 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 family responsibilities.

“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.”

Photography KIT WILLIAMS

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