Celebrating Latino Leaders: Frances Padilla
"With education, we can get better jobs and we can create businesses. We’re able to have better healthcare and stay healthy. We’ll be able to grow the future generation."
President, Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut and co-founder of The Progreso Latino Fund at The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.
Hometown: Bronx, New York
Born and raised in the Bronx, New York to Puerto Rican immigrants, early on the odds were stacked up against Frances Padilla and her family. With a mother in and out of the hospital and a brother in and out of drug rehabilitation, her father struggled to manage the family’s woes while maintaining a sense of normalcy for his younger children, Frances and her younger brother Luis. Frances’ father sought help from the city’s social services office to help him sustain a work-life balance, but they were less than helpful. Though that was not the first time the system failed Frances and her family.
“We had a tragedy in the family that also marked a great deal of who we became, my brother and I,” Frances says. “My brother, Freddy became a heroin addict at the age of 14 and that really marked a difficult period in our family. With my mother sick over Freddy’s struggles, my father was just trying to keep everyone together.”
Frances says in the 1960s, heroin addiction was a crime and instead of being treated her brother was arrested and thrown into the prison system. Frances’ brother dealt with his drug addiction until he was murdered at the age of 21 during an altercation.
Fortunately for Frances and her family, a neighbor offered a beacon of hope during this time. The neighbor offered her father a helping hand with her and her brother Luis, allowing him to keep his job and keep his family afloat. These experiences gave a young Frances perspective.
“Those kinds of things, they really shaped my thinking over time about what I wanted to do in the world.” Frances says.
Connecticut BoundFrances says while she had gained perspective, her path was not yet completely clear when she entered college. Frances attended Wesleyan University, where she was encouraged to apply through ASPIRA (to aspire, in Spanish), a nonprofit dedicated to “developing the educational and leadership capacity of Hispanic youth” , a group she had been involved in since her time at The Bronx High School of Science.
“I decided to major in psychology, mostly because I needed to understand myself better and I needed to better understand the life I had lived up to that point. I remember even in high school, especially after the district attorney sort of blew off my brother’s case, thinking that I wanted to change the way things work.”
After Wesleyan, Frances went to work at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven (the New Haven Foundation as it was known then), and then later, to attend Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she received her Master’s Degree in Public Administration. She says there at the Kennedy School she really wanted to figure out how philanthropy could be a more effective player in public policy.
A New Found Role
After leaving the Kennedy School, Frances founded a consulting practice focused on community development through education, affordable housing, youth development, community organizing and more. As a consultant, she worked with foundations, nonprofit organizations and government officials to address problems in the communities she knew so well growing up. She stayed in that role for 10 years until one of her clients, Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut, which promotes universal access to health care in the State and beyond, suggested she join their staff.
Originally the program director at Universal Health Care Foundation leading its research and policy initiatives, Frances’ leadership in the field was recognized when she was named President in 2012, succeeding its first president, Juan Figueroa.
Frances credits ASPIRA, her cousin Ivette, 11 years her senior who took her under her wing and the many other people along the way who helped her and her family with the successes she’s seen.
“I urge young people, particularly Latino/a/x, to take full advantage of educational opportunities as I did. Many are understandably worried about taking on student debt. I think of student debt as an investment in yourself with long-term return. With education, we can get better jobs and we can create businesses. We’re able to have better healthcare and stay healthy. We’ll be able to grow the future generation.”