Karen Heller: Tireless advocate for youth had 'real and genuine passion'

Shelly Yanoff of Public Citizens for Children and Youth at a City Council hearing on a proposed soda tax in 2011.
Shelly Yanoff of Public Citizens for Children and Youth at a City Council hearing on a proposed soda tax in 2011. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 03, 2012

On many days, for so many years, Shelly Yanoff strode the short distance from her office to City Council's baroque chambers to advocate tirelessly and relentlessly for our region's children. You went to Council, the issue involved kids, Shelly was there.

Yanoff routinely traveled farther, to Harrisburg, sometimes once or twice a week, to do the same, trying to improve children's lives, obtain insurance, extend day care and kindergarten, improve services. She is their ardent and robust champion.

"I thought I would last two months," Yanoff says of her tenure stewarding Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), the small yet essential agency serving Southeastern Pennsylvania's youngest residents.

She lasted 26 years and will retire in early January, an achievement that was honored Friday at Moore College of Art by 300 people.

PCCY's mission "is to improve the lives and life chances of the region's children," says Yanoff, 73, whose soft, childlike voice often belies her tenacity. "There are loads of things that are so much better now, our policies. But children are also poorer, and there's so much concentrated poverty in schools and certain communities."

Former Gov. Ed Rendell says, "It's hard to calculate how much Shelly has meant to the children of Philadelphia or, for that matter, the entire commonwealth. She always aimed big but had the political skills to understand that some gains have to be incremental. Her passion was real and genuine. You knew it was for the kids. There was never any hint of self-aggrandizement."

PCCY worked to secure Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) coverage for dependents not poor enough for Medicaid yet whose parents can't afford insurance. PCCY launched Dental Day, free oral care for children, and another for vision at Wills Eye Hospital, 1,500 children examined in one day. These are the small things - a filled cavity, a proper pair of glasses - that hugely improve lives.

PCCY's annual budget is almost risible, $1.3 million from foundations and private donations, with a staff of 14, proving how much can be accomplished through forceful, consistent advocacy. Yanoff strongly opposed public funding for new Phillies and Eagles venues, a fight she realized she would lose. So she argued, "If the big boys are getting a gift, what if the little ones get something?"

Out of that inspired logic, both teams agreed to donate $1 million each for 20 years to the Fund for Children, administered by the Philadelphia Foundation, a $40 million gift for the little ones.

Yanoff has been the face of PCCY for so long, more than a quarter-century, that many observers worried that the organization might languish without a leader as passionate, connected, and formidable. Then Donna Cooper, Rendell's former aide as mayor and policy director in Harrisburg, was named her successor, a woman every bit as feisty as Yanoff, though given to saltier language. "Donna was the conscience of both my administrations," Rendell says. "The reason we increased education funding for eight years and made such progress is all attributable to Donna."

Following Yanoff "is a daunting task. She's an institution," says Cooper, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington. Her list of PCCY projects is formidable: A strategic plan for early-childhood education, improving child welfare, increasing enrichment programs, cutting down on teacher absences, creating "a 21st-century career and tech center," and tackling the dropout and teen pregnancy rates.

"The pathway for economic growth and decreasing poverty rests on what we do about kids," Cooper tells me. "If we're serious and want to make this region an economic powerhouse, then our future rests on what we do with children. It's too late when you're working with adults. There's no better place to invest than in our kids."

Contact Karen Heller at kheller@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @kheller.

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