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Sam Carrell: Non-profit Leader of the Year


Carrell is ‘good for the kids’

Bedridden with a bout of the stomach flu last week, Sam Carrell managed a weak smile as his four sons took turns fetching trays of comfort food and offering him ginger ale. They lay next to him in his sickbed and stroked his hand, asking in a worried voice: “Daddy, are you OK?”

He and his wife, Amy, have four sons – 7-year-old Quinn, 5-year-old twins Noah and Harrison, and 2-year-old Oliver – who occupy a spot at the center of Carrell’s universe. “Being a dad is the best job I’ve ever had – and it is work,” he says. “You can fudge in a lot of areas, but you can’t fudge being a father.”

The joys of parenthood fill Carrell’s heart and spill over into his career like sunshine on a lake on a still summer day. He left his job at the Iowa Association of Business and Industry a year and a half ago to become executive director of the Number 1 Question: Is it good for the kids? The non-profit group, which Carrell calls “the conscience of the community,” seeks to raise awareness of children’s issues in Greater Des Moines. It challenges business leaders and individuals to keep that question ever-present in their minds when making decisions.

The Number 1 Question got off to what Carrell calls a “fluffy” start in 2001 with a campaign that left some people scratching their heads at billboards asking, “Is it good for the kids?” More sobering was last year’s community growth chart, which Carrell says was an eye-opener even among seasoned human-services professionals: On average, each year in Polk County, 387 babies are born with low birth weights. Another 46 die before their first birthday. About 1,050 children are born to mothers who smoked during their pregnancies. The infant mortality rate among African-Americans is one of the worst in the country. More than 600 mothers receive late or no prenatal care, and about 600 babies are born drug affected. Shelters for the homeless report 680 children residing there daily. There are about 1,558 confirmed cases of abuse of children, but experts estimate as few as one-third of child abuse cases are reported. In Polk County District Court in 2000, there were 1,238 documented Child in Need of Assistance petitions.  

Carrell says 2003 will be a watershed year for the Number 1 Question, which will challenge corporations, non-profit groups and individuals to adopt one of the seven questions used as measurements in the community growth chart and implement an action plan for improvement. The questions are: Are all babies born healthy? Are all kids healthy and well? Are all kids living in a safe and stable home? Are all kids living in a safe and supportive community? Are all kids ready for school? Are all kids succeeding in school? Are all youths preparing for adulthood?

The list goes on. “When you realize the same potential exists in children who are neglected, abused or, frankly, got an unlucky gene-pool draw, it’s a terrible waste of a wonderful resource,” Carrell says.

Carrell and other advocates for the organization say steps to improve the quality of life for Greater Des Moines children don’t necessarily carry a huge price tag, but a head-in-the-sand attitude does. For example, a recent Vanderbilt University study showed the economic impact of each child lost to the criminal justice system is $1.7 million. “When you consider [those findings], you begin to realize the cost savings our communities could realize by investing smart dollars in the critical years of child development,” says Erin Smidt, marketing consultant for the organization.

“Reading, hugging and talking about what happened during the day don’t cost anything, but so many of these ills could be negated by being attentive,” Carrell says. “It’s not a cost issue; it’s a parenting issue.”

Carrell’s job is all-consuming. He meets with human-service providers, government groups, public and closely held companies, and organizations that either play a role or could assist in making life better for children in Greater Des Moines. But he’s careful to balance the demands of his job with his family life so his own children don’t become statistics.

Those efforts haven’t gone unnoticed as the Number 1 Question initiative gains steam in Greater Des Moines.

“The greatest attribute Sam offers this movement and our community is his incredible vision,” says Kristi Knous, director of donor relations and programs for the Greater Des Moines Community Foundation. “He has a vision of where our community should be in relation to how it cares for and prepares our children, and he has made concrete advances in getting our community to a place it needs to be.”

Barry Spear, a vice president at Iowa Health System, says he’s impressed with the entrepreneurial approach Carrell has taken to getting the Number 1 Question’s message across to Central Iowans. “The significance of his accomplishments are unfolding as the movement gains momentum and more schools, businesses, community service organizations and human-service groups endorse the concept and support it,” Spear says. “The impact the movement will have on quality of life in the metro is without question. Choices, when made with an eye on their importance for children, are being made today to support the Number 1 Question.”

Carrell hopes there will be a day in the not-too-distant future when his job is obsolete. “What I would really be excited about is in a year and a half or so, this is so embedded in the community they didn’t need me anymore,” he says.  

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